Rarely does a new pop release come as front-loaded with pathos as this, the fifth and final album from Boston's Morphine. Completed shortly before frontman Mark Sandman collapsed onstage in Italy from a heart attack and died last July, the album is being greeted with more heightened anticipation and gravity than any other in the band's career obviously with good reason. Needless to say, it's hard to approach the music without feeling the weight of the accompanying baggage. The temptation is to seek out especially poignant or ironic lines that might help put the work into some fitting perspective. But as the album was never intended as epitaph or elegy, that temptation has to be resisted.
Morphine's distinctively languid and low two-string bass/saxophone/drums sound is intact here, albeit with some augmentation, as they add piano, strings and even an occasional guitar to the mix. Meanwhile, Sandman's smooth baritone voice remains a constant, at times even dipping into Leonard Cohen territory. For those who had never heard of the band before Sandman's death made headlines, The Night is as good a place to start as any, and if the band's monniker isn't a clue as to what they sound like, consider the late leader's surname.
Morphine's music was always a triumph of minimalism, mining surprising amounts of drama and soul from the sparest of ingredients, deliberately depriving itself of options in favor of resourcefulness and invention. Even Sandman's lyrics skew toward the simple rather than the oblique. Lines like "I'm like a mirror/ I'm nothing 'til you look at me" underscore the band's overall philosophy that less was more less instruments, less strings, less everything. The occasional forays into neo-Beatnik jargon such as "lazy boys and shy Dianes" ("Slow Numbers") or "We were super low" ("Souvenir" [RealAudio excerpt]) fit the trio's cool, smoky cocktail feel. "A Good Woman Is Hard to Find" and "Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer" (RealAudio excerpt) are relatively upbeat, but even the latter, an invitation to party, sounds foreboding in Sandman's hands. The album's moody centerpiece may be the Eastern-tinged "Rope on Fire" (RealAudio excerpt), slinky and funereal at the same time.
Though the events surrounding this release render the album critically immune, the fact remains that Morphine was often in danger of being tagged a one-trick pony. They developed a truly unique sound (no small feat), yet there was always something vaguely gimmicky about it, as if the offbeat instrumentation might make up for what was, at times, only pedestrian songwriting. Morphine's 1993 breakthrough, Cure for Pain, seemed a revelation upon first listen, but once you were accustomed to their sound, the album wore out its welcome surprisingly fast. As much as this listener respected their technique, subsequent releases failed to reignite that initial spark. This album shows a band eager to expand its creative range. One wonders, sadly, what might have come next.