Rock music increasingly seems a tired art form offering diminishing returns: the weight of the past almost overwhelmingly stifling. Just occasionally a band discovers an original angle, adding a new element or removing an until then omnipresent one with startling results. Morphine pulled this trick off with greater elan and greater consistency than most in the last 25 years.
The electric guitar has always been the cornerstone of all things rock, but Mark Sandman and his band decided they could live without it, and to make the challenge more interesting he decided to take two strings of his bass to boot. The master stroke was throwing late night tenor sax into the mix, an instrument that by the late eighties had become a lazy symbol of late night cool, usually played by some trilbied loser on a New York fire exit. In the hands of Morphine’s Dana Colley, the instrument suddenly became genuinely late night sexy, and seamlessly fused with Sandman’s cracked nocturnal croon and slithering slide bass a seductively original sound was born. Such limited ingredients should have had a limited shelf life, but instead the format pushed the creativity of the group, as they produced five exceptional studio albums, each with its own character yet each unmistakably Morphine.
It’s hard to choose a favourite album, but as so often happens, the first album you hear by an artist tends to be the one that hits hardest. I was first seduced by the cover of Yes, a close up of a flame which would prove the perfect metaphor for Morphine’s music: just as you can lose yourself staring at the late night fire, your mind transported, the band’s music proved similarly hypnotic. Within seconds of dropping the needle I knew I was onto a winner, as Yes hits the ground running with a swarming sax hitching itself to an impossibly deep bass rumble on opener Honey White, wherein Mark Sandman deliciously cracked low vocals tell a cautionary tale of addiction with the voice of a man who knows exactly what he is talking about:
She says you’ll get me when I’m old and wizened
And not a day before that.
The devil says it won’t be that long,
Besides I’d like to see a little more fat !
Next up is Scratch, a slower number with beautifully expressive sax stealing the show and then we are into Radar, a stripped back gem: Sandman’s vocals full of late night menace as he relates a tale of irresistible seduction:
Got to the driver of my car…
You penetrate my radar
You drop a bomb in my backyard
From here on in the band stretch out and make themselves comfortable, experimenting with different rhythms and lyrical themes: regret permeates the melancholy sax drenched I had my chance; while the intriguing spoken word piece The Jury is an evocative slice of LA noir recited over a restlessly parping saxophone and shuffling drums.
Mark Sandman often sounds world weary and resentful on this album, but on the standout track on side two, the frenetic Sharks, he expresses his disenchantment through black humour and hyperbole, coming up for breath to warn us to stay in our metaphorical lifeboats as nagging bass and increasingly unhinged sax move in for the kill (think Mark and and the Shark rather than Peter and the Wolf):
Don’t worry about your day glow orange life preserver
It won’t save you, it won’t save you
Swim for the shore just as fast as you are able
Swim like a mother fucker!
Mark Sandman clearly didn’t take his own advice: living life to the full and taking huge musical risks to chase his own vision, before dying tragically young on stage in Italy. He and his band left behind a magnificent legacy – a truly distinctive sound all of their own. Morphine are almost a literary achievement: their music and economically evocative lyrics conjuring up a Chandleresque world of after-hours poker games, whisky and cigarettes, drugs and seduction. Interested ? Step right this way….