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Dead Man Walking (Columbia) is not your average soundtrack -- in fact, it's not really a soundtrack at all. Rather, it was conceived by director Tim Robbins as a companion piece to his film about a death-row prisoner and the nun who befriends him. It grew out of Robbins's desire to see what the thematically rich story would inspire in some of his favorite singer-songwriters -- songwriters, he explains in his liner notes, "whose music tells stories, artists that do not write songs with hooks or tricks."

As with the film, Robbins followed a simple recipe for success -- he assembled a hell of a cast, including A-list songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith, and Lyle Lovett, as well as acclaimed Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Robbins sent each of them a rough cut of the film, with no instructions other than to let the material lead them where it might.

Ask a bunch of introspective singer-songwriters to write about capital punishment and chances are dance fever's not gonna break out. Dead Man Walking is a downcast, spiritual album whose unflinching songs explore various moral and emotional issues raised by a convicted killer's march toward lethal injection.

This kind of thing is bread and butter to Springsteen, who offers a stark Nebraska-style number written from the point of view of the murderer on the eve of his execution. Springsteen's killer offers no excuses, but he's less unrepentant than he is matter-of-fact: "Sister I won't ask for forgiveness, my sins are all I have."

Springsteen hits his mark, but after you hear him deliver pretty much note-for-note what you'd expect ("Once I had a job, I had a girl/But between our dreams and our actions lies this world"), the next track comes as a welcome surprise. It's from Johnny Cash, another singer known to deliver the occasional dirge. Instead, his "In Your Mind" is a gospel-tinged hoedown with a loose-limbed arrangement by Ry Cooder. Cash offers the doomed prisoner hope of transcendence: "One foot on Jacob's Ladder/And one foot in the fire/And it all goes down in your mind." Lyle Lovett fares equally well with "Promises," a gripping solo performance in which the killer searches his soul for answers, only to conclude, "Some things you do you just don't understand."

After that, things branch out a bit, as others explore different aspects of the story. Tom Waits's raggedly beautiful "The Fall of Troy" examines the violent legacy hanging over the killer's family. The narrator in Steve Earle's "Ellis Unit One" is a death-row prison guard haunted by the men he's helped execute.

Suzanne Vega, who takes a left turn with the industrial nerve rattler "Woman on the Tier (I'll See You Through)," and Patti Smith, who offers the funereal "Walkin Blind," are concerned less with telling stories than creating atmosphere. So are Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Eddie Vedder, who duet on the haunting "The Face of Love," a droning, turbulent web of harmonium, percussion, and wailing vocals. (Although Vedder's Far Eastern turn threatens with Spinal Tap hilarity, he actually pulls it off without embarrassment.) The only weak contributions come from Michelle Shocked, whose "Quality of Mercy" sounds stilted and pretentious, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, whose lightweight "A Dream like This" is outclassed by the company.

There are no protest songs here, and no easy answers -- like the film, this exceptional album does justice to a complex and emotional issue. And like the film, it packs a wallop.

-- Chris Erikson

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