Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Unpleasant Music With The Monotony Of Certain Death: Dead Man Walking Soundtrack

The Good: Moments of lyrics and vocals
The Bad: Musically monotonous, Wildly varied vocal qualities, Dull
The Basics: Perhaps wonderful for those who like a strange mix of blues, techno and international wailing, this Dead Man Walking Soundtrack just tormented me.

Once upon a time, I imagined that a fine way to torment me would be to stick me in a room where the music of Tom Waits was softly playing constantly. Say what you will about our poor fellow humans incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, but the whole "loud rap music" hardly strikes me as torture; I can ignore that when driving down the street, I could certainly ignore it being blared at me on end. Sure, it's torment, but it's not as bad as waterboarding, being stuck together in naked piles for publication by U.S. newspapers or having to listen to people debate how much dehumanization is acceptable before it's considered torture. But, I think the raspy, limited range of Tom Waits being played constantly at a pretty mid-volume level would pretty much break anyway. For those unfamiliar with his work, Tom Waits pretty much tops my list of Best Vocalists To Kill Oneself By. He has a raspy voice that makes one think of a chain smoker singing.

I mention this because I no longer fear being locked up by the U.S. government for divergent political views (I'm not a capitalism and I disdain the way private enterprise runs American democracy and I loathe theocracies, but I digress. . .) and being compelled to listen to Tom Waits music as torture. Why? I have survived "Music From And Inspired By The Motion Picture Dead Man Walking. This album, which I am henceforth referencing as the Dead Man Walking Soundtrack, is every bit as bad as I suspect listening to Tom Waits on constant rotation would be. I have not seen Dead Man Walking and I shall openly admit that perhaps there are those who might like this album, but I am not one of them.

With twelve tracks clocking in at 46:17, the Dead Man Walking Soundtrack is a very masculine collection of depressing music. Most of the songs are blues led by such notable singer-songwriters as Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. The mix is almost eclectic with the blues of Springsteen and Cash mixing with an amelodic Techno-pop Suzanne Vega track and Tom Waits and Steve Earle being put up before a caterwauling Patti Smith. Smith, by the way, was how I found this album. I've been trying to find anything of hers to listen to and this is one of the albums my library was able to get in. I am not impressed.

Thematically, this Dead Man Walking Soundtrack - which was used to make money for two charities associated with murder victims, so it has that going for it - is unified by themes of collapse, death and walking (moving on). In that regard, the album comes together fairly well to make its point. Perhaps the best known song on the album is "Dead Man Walkin'" by Bruce Springsteen. This opens the album with the upbeat lines "There's a pale horse comin' / I'm gonna ride it / I'll rise in the morning / My fate decided / I'm a dead man walkin' . . . Once I had a job I had a girl / But between our dreams and actions / Lies this world / In the deep forest / Their blood and tears rushed over me / All I could feel was the drugs and the shotgun / And my fear up inside of me / Like a dead man talkin'" ("Dead Man Walkin'") which pretty much inform the listener of how the rest of the album will be. this is one of the best-written and performed tracks on the album, which is sad in some ways because Springsteen mumbles through parts of it.

One of the other well-written tracks is Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Dead Man Walking (A Dream Like This)." On that song, which she wrote, she uses some very stark imagery. She opens with a very disarming, "Never had a dream like this / Never felt the cold cold steel / Slam you like a fist" ("Dead Man Walking (A Dream Like This)") before getting into a very dark story about being a tattooed prisoner being mugged by guards and waiting to die. It's harsh and it is told with a storylike quality that makes its themes quite clear in a very articulate way.

Even the Tom Waits song "The Fall Of Troy" has something to say. Of course, it's not surprising when Tom Waits writes a song that is dark and depressing and here he does not disappoint the listener by breaking that form. Instead, he wrote and performed "The Fall Of Troy" with is lines "Why cook dinner, why make my bed / Why come home at all? / Out the door and through the woods /There's a world where nothing grows / It's hard to say grace and to sit in the place / Of someone missing at the table." Waits sings a dark tale with his usual musing quality that is disturbing but has a statement to make.

At least those lyrics are comprehensible. Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan - who appear on the album twice by reversing who the primary and supporting artists are - sing in a foreign tongue and mumble through the English. Honestly, I've no idea the language being sung in and I'm someone who appreciates different musical styles. However, at the end of their song "The Face Of Love," they degenerate into shrieking back and forth to one another in the most unpleasant of sounds.

But many of the vocals are downright boring. Johnny Cash's "In Your Mind" is quite possibly the most predictable Cash song one could imagine. It's pretty much every Johnny Cash song; there is nothing stylistically that separates it or makes it distinctive to the listener and as a result, it becomes like Johnny Cash white noise. Tom Waits' songs sound just like Tom Waits as well. My point here is that there is nothing distinct here about most of the way these songs sound. For the artist I was even only passingly familiar with - like Suzanne Vega and Patti Smith - the songs sounded like a generic song by X. The album blends together as auditory mush. That is, when it's not being unlistenable.

Most of the tracks are simply guitar and vocals with the exceptions being things like Suzanne Vega's "Woman On The Tier (I'll See You Through)" which is a loud keyboard and bass-driven track that is so incongruent with the sound of the rest of the album it is disturbing (also perhaps because the rhymes in it are also the most predictable and obvious). Of course, when an album is generally unpleasant to listen to, the one that is incongruent with for being auditorily more murky and disturbing truly says a lot.

Usually, I close with a best and worst track, but the way this album has been replaying I'm just done thinking about it. The whole album is cohesive in an unpleasant and strangely demanding way. I get that the film is supposed to be a heavy film about the search for redemption and a man waiting to be executed by the state and the music here carries that theme but in a monotonous way that does not make any argument or point, it just mulls around waiting to die. And I'm pretty much done with that now.

For other soundtrack reviews, please visit my takes on:
An Inconvenient Truth Soundtrack
Labyrinth Soundtrack
Twelfth Night Soundtrack


For other music reviews, check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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