February 13, 2003

Ed's Underground

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Even in a career as long and willfully diverse as Neil Young’s, a record like Dead Man is pretty unusual. The soundtrack to fringe director Jim Jarmusch’s inventive film of the same name, Young’s score is an album’s worth of entirely instrumental solos on guitar, pump organ, and detuned piano, mixed with snippets of philosophical dialogue along with Johnny Depp reading the poetry of William Blake. If that all sounds weird, you obviously haven’t seen the movie.

Dead Man is Jarmusch’s warped nod to the Old West, a twisted Western fable starring Depp as a reluctant anti-hero haunted by an enigmatic Indian called Nobody (who thinks Depp is the poet Blake). Young’s dark, intense solos are the perfect accompaniment to this cerebral cowboys-and-Indians flick. He reportedly wrote the soundtrack by improvising while watching the film, and it shows; each track is a wandering, vaguely Western-themed instrumental that matches Dead Man perfectly in tone and pacing.

Young occasionally switches things up with a ghostly pump organ or piano track, but the best moments here are unsurprisingly the ones where he cuts loose on his electric guitar. His distinctive tone is as recognizable as ever, and most of the guitar compositions revolve around a central motif, built up with layer upon layer of distortion and chunky riffs. The music mirrors the film’s surrealistic blurring of the boundaries between life and death. Young’s playing is richly detailed and emotional; it’s clear that each note articulates the guitarist’s personal reactions to Jarmusch’s film.

Young may have composed this music as a response to Dead Man, but the score completely changes the film as a result. Accompanied by music this good, this heartfelt, the movie’s visuals take on an even greater power. Separately from the film, this is simply a really great album — raw, affecting genius that sounds like nothing (but somehow, everything) else in Young’s catalog.

Archived article by Ed Howard