Let’s state the obvious; very few film soundtracks come close to the originality present in Neil Young’s score for Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film Dead Man. Furthermore, there tends to be a stigma attached when a popular artist attempts scoring music for a film (The Batman album by Prince, anyone?) so it is even more of an accomplishment that Young’s work is so phenomenal here. This came after a great period where Young had been touring with Sonic Youth in 1991 and it feels like that younger group may have rubbed off on him.
These stark improvised guitar pieces, recorded by Young while he watched the film alone, were and still are tremendously unique. The pieces evoke Morricone and their influence can be heard today especially in the recent work of Earth (who had their music featured in a later Jarmusch film). The quality of the music aside, this worked so effectively with the film. The starkness of the music matches the grainy black and white film perfectly, and the improvised nature plays off Jarmusch’s own patient, subtle style. Often with his films you’re never quite sure where things will go, as if he were improvising on the spot, and Young plays right into that. This electric guitar score for a modern cowboy movie should be remembered as far more than just a soundtrack; it is one of Neil Young’s most fascinating albums.