Well, not a “soundtrack,” as the “music from and inspired by the motion picture” of Tim Robbins’ excellent 1995 film, Dead Man Walking.
Ah, the dreaded “music from and inspired by the motion picture” album. The lasting legacy of Jerry Bruckheimer’s popbuster era, where each tent-pole film had to have a hit single, and the hit single also led a compilation album of songs that might have been heard in the film. Or might be similar in theme or feel to the film.
Or, most likely, songs that the record company paid the film’s producers to put on the album for a bit of cross-promotion.
Thankfully, the popbuster has mostly gone the way of the big-name-star led action films they accompanied, and buying a soundtrack album these days actually means you’re getting, you know, the musical soundtrack to the film. But, for a while there, every film had to have the accompanying album of odds and sods.
And, of the thousands of horrible albums released to tie in with a film, thousands of horrible albums with music from and inspired by, there’s quite a large number of very worthy albums.
Including this album for Dead Man Walking.
It’s an album that flits between the spiritual and deeply grounded. An album with some terrible darkness; of death’s shadow looming large, as befits the film’s subject matter of a nun’s time spent with a prisoner on death row and the families of the men he killed. And of resignation rising to a sense of accepting peace, just as the nun’s ministries help the murder acknowledge his crime and help him grasp towards some kind of acceptance of his own terrible fate.
The album’s tied together by a pair of songs either by or featuring Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose keening, soaring voice in the Qawwali tradition, which plays a large role in the film, are tied to the more grounded, husky and very American voice of Eddie Vedder.
And around those two songs are a snapshot of some of the finest American “roots” singers and songwriters of our times. Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Suzanne Vega, Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits, Michelle Shocked, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Steve Earle and Patti Smith.
My word, what a list of amazing talents. All providing songs (most newly written for the soundtrack or album) that touch on the film’s themes of murder and salvation in one way or another.
In the liner notes Robbins writes how, after a rough cut of the film had been prepared, he sent it out with a pile of news clippings about the subject matter to a range of songwriters “whose music tells stories, artists that do not write songs with hooks or tricks. All of these songwriters come from a base of honesty.”
The mood’s mostly downbeat, and very very rootsy. Even the more up-beat songs (Shocked’s “Quality of Mercy” and Waits’ “Walk Away”) are powerful songs of the search for redemption. And each of those is followed by two of the most harrowing death-row songs I’ve ever heard – Chapin Carpenter’s “Dead Man Walking (A Dream Like This)” and Earle’s “Ellis Unit One.”
Ellis Unit One indeed is a must-hear; a heart-rending tale of a prison guard on death row, illuminating the toll being the executioner takes on an otherwise ordinary man.
Fortunately, the album ends on the second song featuring Khan, a gorgeous Eddie Vedder-led song “The Long Road” that provides some solace and, perhaps, hope. And maybe a hint of forgiveness, though only beyond the grave. I’ll leave the clip for that here, but if you haven’t heard “Ellis Unit One” before I’d recommend also clicking through the above to understand the compelling horror and sadness this album also contains.
Beer match: Mull this album over, gently, with a gentle, dark ale. Cassels & Sons Milk Stout would be nice. From a beer machine, if at all possible. Good for a quiet drink while thinking things over.
 I.e., they’re still around, but not as prevalent.↩
 Gosh, playing this album again, I suddenly remember I don’t think it’s mine. I think I borrowed it from a friend, a decade or more ago. Sorry, Pearce!↩