Morphine: The Night

The Night.jpg

Losing Mark Sandman in 1999 caught everyone off guard; the Boston indie rock scene lost one of it’s most innovative musicians at the age of 46. But his swan song, Morphine‘s fifth and final studio release, was completed just before his death in July 1999. It finally saw release on February 1, 2000.

The Night was standard Morphine in so many ways – drowsy, dreamy, laconic. The typically sparse arrangements (baritone sax, trap kit, homemade two-string base) fit like an old pair of shoes, Mark’s lyrics made up of personal tales and philosophical musings. And yet, even now, eighteen years later, there’s no listening to the album without being aware that it is the band’s last. 

Standout cut “Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer” raises the tempo a notch or two and brings in the excellent John Medeski to guest on B3. Despite being the longest track on the disc, it’s also the most like a traditional radio single, following standard verse-chorus-verse structure with a repetitive refrain. While no singles were released from this record, this would have been the obvious go to. (Follow up single would have to go to “A Good Woman Is Hard To Find.”) And, like so many radio singles, it would not be particularly representative of the rest of the album.

Far more characteristic is the opening title cut in which both the lyrics and delivery have a laconic, Leonard Cohen-like aspect to them. Similar in mood and structure is “Like A Mirror,” in which Sandman sings, “I’m like a mirror, I’m like a mirror / I’m nothin’ ’til you look at me…” More than any other track on the album, “Like A Mirror” illustrates just how much this band is able to accomplish with just three instruments and a stunning conservation of sound – as though the studio were charging them by the note. Despite the paucity of instruments, the band manages to weave a massive, daunting soundscape behind the breathy, nearly whispered, half-spoken lyrics.

Morphine has always had a cult following, and deservedly so. As a fan, it would be easy to say that they deserved a larger audience than they ever found, but it’s also, objectively, easy to understand why they toiled as indie-darlings who never really made it out of the minor leagues. Their lack of conventional instrumentation and the scarcity of traditional singles material on their records makes them a hard sell for the masses. But those are the same traits that endeared them to their fans and generated such love for their music.

The Night is as good a coda to their career as anything else they might have done. I’d first started listening to the band six or seven years earlier with the release of their “break out” Cure For Pain album in 1993. And from that album to this, there is very little variation; you could release all five albums in a box set and what you’d have would be a markedly cohesive vision of what they wanted their music to sound like. Very little changed about the band’s output over their decade of performing and recording. That’s what makes The Night fitting as a parting statement: night, of course, is when things finally end and, fittingly, when Mark Sandman left us, he was singing, “Take me with you when you go…”

 

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