'West of Memphis' has good intentions but misses the mark
It’s the odd album review that tackles a soundtrack, much less a soundtrack to a film about an 18-year-old murder case whose three defendants were recently released after having been imprisoned in their early twenties. Albums like this tend to work on a visceral, communal level; it is simply the nature of their existence.
On the flip side, odds and ends compilations made up of assorted “freedom songs” by artists too rich to remember the poor conditions they sing about tend to ring hollow. Strangely enough, West of Memphis seems to split the difference with a combination of pleasant revelations and phoned-in sincerity.
For every inspired track like Dixie Chicks leader Natalie Maines’ covering of Pink Floyd’s “Mother” with a clean, jammy groove, there is something like the Camp Freddy version of David Bowie’s “Jean Genie” or Marilyn Manson’s impressively misguided take on “You’re So Vain.”
Manson’s track serves as a perfect example of how even an album with as much spirit and liner-note support as West of Memphis can come off as musically torturous, although its heart is in the right place.
On the surface, it makes perfect sense for Manson to be a part of the project. The case of the West Memphis Three started with its eponymous twenty-somethings being convicted of the murder of three young boys in a Satanic ritual. As a public figure who has had endured more than his fair share of corrupt allegations of Satanism, Manson’s inclusion suggests a powerful artistic unity.
While a good deal of the soundtrack fails to inspire musically as much as it does conceptually, some of the more eclectic choices for the album are actually West of Memphis’ best tracks. Re-recording her song “Joy,” Lucinda Williams croaks her blues-addled heart out amidst iron chain percussion and nervous drumwork that recalls another patron saint of prisoners, Johnny Cash.
Likewise, Bill Carter contributes a gorgeous country-inflected gem in “Anything Made of Paper.” Wielding a voice that sounds more Times They Are A-Changin’ than Bob Dylan’s cursory appearance on the album, Carter pens lines about being “inside the world where bitterness grows,” imploring both the listener and the Memphis Three themselves to “hold on ‘til tomorrow just to see what it brings, no matter how small.”
Of course it’s not just about the small names on the album jacket. The soundtrack’s very first song finds Henry Rollins solemnly reading West Memphis Three member Damien Echols’ account from inside his prison cell.
Echols’ harrowing words are chillingly paired with excerpts from the film’s score composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The album ends with Echols’ close friend Johnny Depp doing the same, and both tracks function as reminders of the soundtrack’s purpose.
Elsewhere Depp turns in a jaw-dropping cover of Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man,” a song that supposedly helped Echols find the strength to keep going as his release drew near.
Enveloped in textures more suited to a record by The National or Bon Iver, “Little Lion Man” actually emerges as one of the best songs on the album. Ultimately it’s a toss-up between Depp’s “Little Lion Man” and the album’s sole bonus track, “Wing” by the indomitable Patti Smith. A live recording from when Smith performed at a West Memphis Three rally, “Wing” drives home the point that even in times of political desperation, there is rarely anything more powerful than human and artistic connection.