Yet another of the brilliant concept albums Fabrizio De André released in the early '70s, Non Al Denaro, Non All'amore Nè Al Cielo("Nor Gold, Nor Love, Nor Heaven") is based on Edgar Lee Masters' famous collection of poems Spoon River Anthology. This was the first time De André adapted or translated material from a culture other than Italian or French, and he went about it in a much looser way. Masters' book consisted of fictional epitaphs delivered by the dead themselves, succinctly summarizing their hollow lives, effectively creating an unscathing collective fresco of the American small town and small-minded society. Together with poet Giuseppe Bentivoglio, De André selected only nine of a total of 244 poems by Masters, discarded the original free form for rhyme and, fundamentally, most often chose to thoroughly rewrite the texts instead of relying on literal translation. De André's main concern was how to turn a quintessential (and by then, outdated) American setting into a universal small town. All the specific references to American history and society that abound in Masters' work (particularly those dealing with the consequences of the Civil War) are gone, replaced by a close focus on those themes and characters that would have felt perfectly at home in any of De André's own songs: a cast of outsiders and born losers trapped in a provincial bourgeoisie environment that stifles its dreamers through pettiness, hypocrisy, and envy.
Musically, this record is also somewhat different from the previous two concept albums, starting with the fact that De André hired a new arranger for this project, a fresh from the conservatory Nicola Piovani, who would eventually become the leading Italian film composer of his generation. Non Al Denaro does away with the suite for narrator and choir structure of La Buona Novella and Tutti Morimmo a Stento. As a result, there is a brighter, sardonic gait to most of this record (highlighted by the ubiquitous use of flute) that contrasts with the solemn tone of before. Several tracks are closer to a pop song format rather than to a suite piece, and can stand on their own independently. Among a uniformly excellent collection, the delicate "Un Malato di Cuore" shines with a tenderness unparalleled in De André's catalog. The story of a young boy born with a heart deficiency who dies after being given his first kiss, this is a song that is literally heartbreaking. Mention should also be made of the haunting leadoff track "Dormono Sulla Collina" that -- just like in the book -- introduces and synthesizes the entire project. Through clenched teeth, De André takes roll call for a dozen or so Spoon River citizens from all walks of life, now all resting together in the town's cemetery, only to find out they'd all met with some kind of tragic or ignominious death. The song also provides an illuminating example of how De André expanded and recontextualized the original material. Where Masters wrote the single line "they brought them dead sons from the war," in reference to the village's youth that went to the civil war and came back only as corpses, De André includes an entire verse: "where are the sons that went to war/gone because of an ideal/a scam, a love gone wrong/they sent home their remains covered in the flag/tied up tight so that they'd look as if they were in one piece." Not only is a much more harrowing image of the brutality of war that also criticizes the pretenses of patriotism, but in 1971 it was impossible not to be reminded of the coffins coming back to the U.S. from a raging Vietnam war. Spoon Rivers Anthology was introduced to Italian culture in the '40s thanks to the courageous effort of translator Fernanda Pivano, and became a cult book among Italian youth and intelligentsia. In the opinion of Pivano herself, De André's concise, updated, reinterpretation of Masters' poetry far surpassed its source. Those fortunate enough to understand the nuances of both the English and Italian versions would find it very hard not to agree with her, and that is just about the highest compliment one can pay to this extraordinary album.