Out There

Death row
Dead Man Walking
Various artists
Columbia Records

Dead Man Walking is, at its core, a soundtrack meant to accompany the Tim Robbins-directed film about a brutal death-row inmate and his relationship with the nun who would be his savior. But this collection tells its own larger story through smaller ones, using disparate voices male and female, familiar and foreign, gruff and gorgeous to expound upon simple and well-worn themes--the redemption that accompanies death (the victim's or the convict's), the lonely anguish of the survivors, the demons that advise and corrupt us all.

It's a spiritual record recounted through a secular voice, the songs of Patti Smith, Michelle Shocked, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Eddie Vedder, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Suzanne Vega conveying the gospel of the damned. In "Dead Man Walkin'," Bruce Springsteen assumes the guise of the condemned man taking his final steps toward the injection chamber. He recounts how his own dreams were destroyed by the blast of his own shotgun; in one breath, he recalls his birth and looks toward his own death, the "new day coming" once his veins run cold with the state's poison. He doesn't want to be saved--"Sister, I won't ask for forgiveness," he insists, "My sins are all I have"; he just wants his say.

Johnny Cash, a man of the Lord who knows something of sin, casts his compassionate judgment upon the condemned man; his gospel-tinged "In Your Mind" sends the executed off to eternity with a castigating word: You can beg for redemption, he says, but "God don't hear dead men." And Lyle Lovett offers his own sermon, offering no reasons and accepting no excuses : "If you are my judge, then I'm already dead." Tom Waits offers up the victim's side, his voice a sad matter-of-fact snarl that offers little hope for the dead or the living; Waits tells his story almost as though narrating a documentary, casually recounting facts--("The oldest was Troy, an 18-year-old boy shot dead in March in a robbery," he sings, barely finishing the sentence)--and accepting the death and doom that surround every mundane action.

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In Steve Earle's "Ellis Unit One," the narrator explains a lifetime spent inside a prison, like his daddy's and brothers' before him. But Earle's is a self-imposed sentence: His character is a guard, a dispassionate observer who patrols the corridors and watches his own life crawl by like a death sentence. The guard used to watch as the locals celebrated by toasting the dimming of the lights with a beer and a holler. But that was before the lethal injections, before the inmates died in a forgotten silence. "Swing low," Earle moans, "and carry me home."

--Robert Wilonsky

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