Reflecting on the auspicious classic from a most unique band
Few band names tell you what to expect quite like Morphine.
Between Mark Sandman’s gravel voiced reading of his lyrics peppered with an immediacy of every emotion flowing through him (and over you) at once, his frenzied conversations with Dana Colley’s baritone saxophone musings, and Jerome Deupree (and on one track, his replacement Billy Conway) vigorously laying down the percussion, the band took a hold of your brain in a narcotic flash coupled with a hint of dangerous nights to come.
In a random Reddit post from 2011, a user named “Jasnie,” having loved a live set from the band Red Snapper and their eccentric use of the saxophone, sourced the online crowd for suggestions of indie rock bands who incorporate the instrument in a “heavy and clever” manner. First comment, by “TheBaphoment,” simply said “One word — Morphine.” It IS, after all, what we were all thinking.
There is no ‘90s prominent indie rock band who employed the brassy woodwind instrument as effectively as the Boston-area trio. As Ben Folds Five were to piano, so were Morphine to the saxophone. Or multiple saxophones. But we’ll get to that.
Unique is a lazy reviewer’s word, but between Sandman’s ashy voice and the nearly impossible to duplicate instrumentalism, Morphine is just that. Sax/bass/percussion may be the most common jazz trio lineup, but how many successful indie rock bands can you name with that lineup? Also, Sandman’s bass renderings occupy their own universe. As the legend goes, Sandman was messing around making music with Colley, experimenting with a slide on the bass, when he decided to cut the instrument down to two strings. He once told a reporter he only really needed one, and that the second was merely for vanity. Anyway, Sandman and Colley started jamming, liked the way it sounds, and the Morphine sound was born. Oh, did we mention Colley would sometimes also play two saxes at once?
Other than that odd excess, minimalism is the word of the day on Morphine’s recordings. Mixing jazz, blues, goth, rock, punk… kitchen sink(?), the music could be so seductive as to mesmerize the listener into believing a whole orchestra was present, if slumming in the shadows. Morphine lived in the deepest, dankest parts of the PM, or more precisely in the pitch black of the AM. Their music evokes lost nights traversing holes in the wall, ones that had to bribe the local cops to stay open into the witching hours, downing cheap whiskey while diving “headlong into the irresistible” in Sandman’s words. And their second record, Cure For Pain, is as foreboding, sinister, and alluring as it gets.
The 1993 classic is their most beloved by far, selling over 400,000 records internationally, and it’s the only band to dent the Acclaimed Music site (coming in at 1809 overall on the critical round-up site). It came close on the heels of Morphine’s debut Good, a year earlier. Contrary to the more usual path, where Good set up their low-end heavy, darkly alternative sound, Cure for Pain was far more frenetic and unpredictable.
After Colley freestyles on a brief intro titled “Dawna,” Sandman enters with a simple, yet burrowing bassline. Sandman’s voice creeps in with “I hear a voice/from the back of the room/I hear a voice cry out/he want something good” on “Buena.” The language builds slowly with tactical use of repetition, as the sinister narrator tries to lure his mark in with classic Blues tale of a deal with the titular devil. The devil is essentially named “good” and the soul seller bears no regret. While in other hands, it would be silly, but there is a genuine menace lurking within.
Sandman is about as talkative as he gets on the surprisingly melodic, borderline ballad “I’m Free Now.” Capturing the inner dialogue of a manic depressive (or maybe just the angst of any soul paying attention), Sandman goes back and forth spouting that old mantra all us creatives love that we are going to write a great novel or helm a cinematic classic, only to have it all come crashing down with the realization that they are an utter piece of shit. The gut wrenching is compounded by how he’s now poisoning the well of his bond with someone he loves by pouring it out on the listener.
In 2017, the premier Netflix animated comedy about depression, Bojack Horseman, released an episode called “Stupid Piece of S^&*” where we heard the titular 50-something horse’s inner voice as he berated himself for all the dumb stuff he’s done in his life, all the while making new mistakes. It’s an all-time great episode of television, but Morphine laid out all the same feel in three dimensions 24 years earlier in a tenth of the time with just a few instruments. And that’s Morphine in a nutshell, to misparaphrase another famous madman.
Sandman’s compositions, and the trio’s performance of them, vibrate at a pulse far beyond the words on the page and the sparse arrangements. It’s well-near miraculous the depth of the emotions and intricacies of the scenes relayed by the songs on Cure for Pain. Take “Sheila” for example, where Sandman goes nursery rhyme on us as his tale about Sheila, her relationship with her cat (it’s a mutual one), and her darkly magical ways. There’s barely over 30 distinct words, yet you can feel a longing, a passion, a deep connection between singer and muse.
All that said, Sandman is not beyond throwing in a complex strings-laced folk ballad, like “In Spite of Me,” a gentle rainstorm of a song somewhere between the John Prine and Tom Waits songbooks. Lyrically, it’s a spiritual sibling of “I’m Free Now,” perhaps the story a few hours and beers later.
In some ways it’s not surprising that a band as eclectic as Morphine never had a big hit. “Honey White” and “Early to Bed,” the first singles off their following two albums, did bubble under the alternative charts and get Matt Pinfield’s attention and adulation. That said, the back-to-back tracks of the melodically urgent “Thursday” and the chill title track would have been smashes in my perfect world.
Sadly, Sandman died on stage in Italy in 1999 at age 47. You can find footage of his final interview and some of the last full performance online. It may be morbid, but it’s also evidence of just how sudden Sandman’s exit was. Morphine disbanded immediately. They had an album in the can, their fifth, which would be released as, fittingly, The Night. Reviews were mostly positive, with some hailing it as their best. Colley, Duepree, and Conway (the latter died in 2021) would perform songs as Orchestra Morphine then Members of Morphine then Vapors of Morphine, the names testament to the band’s impossibility to be more than a ghost minus the Sandman. You can hear echoes of Morphine in bands from Man Man to the White Stripes (and even more so Jack White’s solo work) to Band of Skulls, but ultimately they were singular.
And Cure for Pain is their essential record and still fits in by fitting in nowhere specific in the musical landscape 30 years later.