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Dead Man Walking
Columbia CD CK 67522, 1995 (46:17)

 By the brothers and sisters grim

This remarkable CD is subtitled "music from and inspired by the motion picture," similar to a soundtrack, but including music that didn't make it to the film. The film, directed by Tim Robbins and starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, recounts the events surrounding the execution of the murderer of a young couple as seen through the eyes of a nun he has contacted by mail. A stellar roster of artists were shown an early cut of the film and asked to compose appropriate music. It's hard to imagine a more fitting group to interpret the capital punishment drama: Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Michelle Shocked, Steve Earle and Patti Smith, among others.

It's difficult for anthologies such as this to gel as a cohesive whole rather than remain a bunch of disconnected tracks. For that reason, I rarely buy soundtracks or "tribute" collections. But the gravity of the theme here works to limit the range of emotions, and results in a CD that works both as entertainment and as artistic soul searching. There are relatively few examples of popular music confronting capital punishment outside of the traditional blues numbers such as "Gallows Pole." (Merle Haggard is probably the best-known exponent of this macabre sub-genre, with several hauntingly beautiful songs, including "Sing Me Back Home.") There are more frequent references to prisoners and prison life, long staples of country music, with occasional pop references, and now a fair inventory of rap. But prison songs are typically tales of bravado, or lost love-rarely confrontations of the grim finality.

Springsteen opens with the plaintive title track, affecting but weaker than the chilling plea of the Starkweather character on the title song from his album Nebraska, "please make sure my little baby's sitting right here on my lap." Johnny Cash follows with a jaunty country gospel that whistles directly into the face of death, but never denies the impending fate. Cash sounds as good as ever on this sharply written number, which reflects the deep spirituality of an album that somehow steers clear of preachiness. There are no overt political statements, as if the final confrontation transcends petty human affairs.

Suzanne Vega plays the nun in a truly scary evocation of death row as seen through the eyes of a visitor. The same sort of pulsing, pounding and clanging noise she used as background in "Blood Makes Noise" (from her album 99.9° F) now stands in for the incessant headache of prison life. Tom Waits has two songs. "The Fall of Troy" is a typical Waits' drunken waltz. The more interesting is the country gospel of "Walk Away," which recalls "Sixteen Tons."

Steve Earle's ballad takes the viewpoint of a second-generation prison guard who has to deal with being transferred to Ellis Unit One, the death row. He remembers his father's tales of the gross carnival atmosphere of old-time electrocutions, laments that "Sparky's gathering dust," but lives with nightmares of his own execution. Earle's plain, quiet vocals and guitar understate the complexity of this tune.

There are also two cuts by Pakistani master singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the inexplicably ubiquitous Eddie Vedder. These Islamic-tinged songs are deeply affecting for two reasons. First, the English lyrics to the swirling chants place these mysterious songs into a Western context while retaining a very Eastern feel. Second, they remind us, as no other songs on the album do, that it's more often African-Americans than poor whites awaiting death.

Another highlight is the return of Patti Smith. She has a new album due soon, but until then we'll have to settle for this solitary tune, featuring Tom Verlaine's guitar work. Her voice has grown a bit deeper and more controlled, but this is very much a vintage Smith in a slow, poetic, blues chant. Mary Chapin Carpenter seems an unlikely contributor, but she checks in with a beautiful, aching ballad.

The drawer of the CD player clangs shut like a prison door when you sink down into this set. Riding it out is a rough but rewarding look into the characters of all involved in the American Kabuki play of capital justice. There's a similar emotional depth to Lou Reed's  Magic and Loss, his tribute to the suffering of friends dying too soon. Both are deeply felt and completely realized evocations of a world you hope never to live in. But either vicariously through the mass media or more directly through the loss of a friend or family member, we all do visit. Works like this provide a sympathetic companion. --  Bill Kuhn

 Mark Oppfelt says... This is a wonderful collection of 12 new songs by veteran artists such as Tom Waits, Lyle Lovett, Johnny Cash, Suzanne Vega and Steve Earle. Not all tracks are actually heard during the movie, which gives this pseudo-soundtrack its own identity and the unique ability to stand apart from the film. Leave it to Springsteen to write the haunting and moving title track that immediately grabs the listener's heart strings and starts tugging. "The Long Road" and "The Face of Love" team up grunge heart-throb Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for duets that are among the most memorable and moving songs on the album. Don't use the excuse of waiting to see the movie before buying this album.

production notes

Bruce Springsteen; Johnny Cash; Suzanne Vega; Lyle Lovett; Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with Eddie Vedder; Tom Waits; Michelle Shocked; Mary Chapin Carpenter; Steve Earle; Patti Smith.

Tim Robbins and David Robbins, executive producers; mastered by David Mitson.

of related interest

Lou Reed
 Magic and Loss, Sire CD 26662, 1992 (58:37)

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.