Dead Man Walking: Music From And Inspired By The Motion Picture
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/22/2014
[Adapted from a review originally appearing in On The Town magazine on March 19, 1996]
Put on your shelf—right next to Internet romance—as a new cultural milestone of the ’90s, the non-soundtrack soundtrack: music "inspired" by a movie which does not appear in the movie itself. If that sounds strange, the reality turns out even stranger in the dark, uneven but sometimes compelling soundtrack Tim Robbins commissioned for his Oscar-nominated
film Dead Man Walking.
Robbins sent a rough cut of his movie to eleven of his favorite singer-songwriters, asking them to write a song encompassing and/or reacting to the movie's grim story of an idealistic nun trying to redeem the soul of a vicious thug waiting to be executed. The results remind me of a garage sale—several items that feel like bargains and a number I can't imagine anyone spending their money on.
Chief among the bargains is the Lyle Lovett gem, "Promises." In a few softly sung words—"some things you do, you just don't understand," Lovett captures the essence of the question the movie asks about the humanity of a killer. Mary Chapin Carpenter, with her luminous voice and knowing lyric, succeeds in finding her way inside the hardness Lovett explores to expose the tenderness buried within. Steve Earle offers another riveting turn in "Ellis Unit One"—the perfect complement to Bruce Springsteen's deservedly Oscar-nominated title song, both arranged and sung with utter simplicity, relying solely—and successfully—on the emotional truth of their authors' voices to carry them.
The remaining songs, while uniformly dark, are, shall we say, idiosyncratic. In the cases of Johnny Cash and Patti Smith, this ultimately emerges is a compliment. As for the rest... well, if you enjoy Suzanne Vega's more self-consciously arty chants, you'll like her alternately compelling and exasperating piece here. The two songs offered by the unique pairing of Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder are exotic and sometimes hypnotic, but ultimately unfulfilling and so off-track as to be more of a distraction than anything else. The two Tom Waits songs are the most disappointing, sounding much like a parody of Joe Cocker doing badly-rhymed show tunes after three too many scotches.
Overall, this album does manage to capture many of the qualities of the movie from which it took inspiration: solitude, escape from earthly concerns, and the search for some measure of redemption.