In these days of hectic music, hyperactive multi-tracking, hideous levels of compression and producers throwing everything into a mix to
distract us from deficiencies in the songwriting, a listener sometimes needs sparser, less cluttered sounds. Recordings that give the
instruments room to breathe, performed by bands who make compelling use of a deliberately limited palette.
Maybe that’s why I’ve been listening to music by Low and early Iron and Wine of late, bands that fit this pattern perfectly. But more than
any other act in 2016, I’ve been enjoying the music of the late, lamented Massachusetts trio Morphine. This group toured during the nineties
with nothing more than a saxophone, drum-kit and two-string bass guitar to underpin Mark Sandman’s distinctive baritone voice.
Sandman himself was a fascinating character. After graduating from university he didn’t go into music straight away. Rather Mark
spent his twenties travelling, experiencing the extremes and vicissitudes of life, trying to figure out his place in the world. Sandman
supported himself through a variety of casual jobs, as a labourer or fisherman, inhabiting an underground, often dangerous world. He was
even stabbed in the chest once by a particularly recalcitrant fare while working as a taxi driver.
As related in the excellent documentary ‘Cure For Pain – The Mark Sandman Story’, it was during his time in South America that Sandman’s adventures came to an abrupt halt when he contracted a life-threatening disease and was forced to return to the family home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As if this wasn’t a stark enough reminder of his own mortality, by the time of Sandman’s convalescence both of his brothers had passed away, by accident or illness. The message from the universe was clear - if Sandman was to make something of those artistic inclinations he harboured, now was the moment.
And seize the day he did, recording more than twelve albums of fantastic music between the release of his first act’s 1986 debut and an untimely death thirteen years later.
That initial project – Treat Her Right - boasted a relatively traditional blues-rock set-up but their releases are all worth a listen; a mixture of covers and songwriting split
between the players. Sandman had other projects too, having thrown himself into the Massachusetts scene on his return, proving just as restless on his musical journey
as that earlier geographical one. It was in a jam act called The Hypnosonics where Sandman first hooked up with drummer Jerome Deupree and, through the extended Treat
Her Right family, went on to meet virtuoso saxophone player Dana Colley.
Colley’s abilities sparked something in Sandman and soon the three men were collaborating. Morphine formed in 1989 to play what
its frontman called ‘low rock’ with Colley’s saxophone front and centre, taking the place of the traditional guitar. Even with this
unusual approach they clearly remained a rock band, but a particularly expansive one, incorporating elements of jazz, blues and
experimental playing into the arrangements.
By the time of 1992’s ‘Good’, the trio found themselves amid the US grunge boom, but playing music that didn’t deploy the guitar and whose frontman couldn’t have been less
interested in exploring angsty teenagerdom. Indeed, the enigmatic Sandman pursued very adult themes in his work, memories of his wild years filtered through a love of film
noir and psychological thrillers; lyrics depicting risky assignations and femme fatales, men lingering in the corrupt end of town, at home in the shadows.
No, what Morphine offered was different, more challenging and European in sensibility, a set-up gig-goers simply hadn’t seen
before. Colley would often play two saxophones at once while Sandman didn’t even do traditional press, refusing to speak about
anything but music when pushed. But through 1993’s ‘Cure For Pain’ and constant touring, Morphine built up a fanbase around
the world, playing the Reading festival and winning over crowds in Australia, Belgium and Portugal, even as their success in the US remained limited, that of the underground
All the records Morphine’s released within the band’s lifetime have their cheerleaders, and I would certainly class the first four albums as essential, but, for the purposes
of this column, I’m going with 1995’s ‘Yes’. That was their third long-player and Morphine’s last for an independent label and I think ‘Yes’ is most representative of their
sound, in its accessibility and attention-grabbing style. This is a succinct record too, at well under forty minutes. But ‘Yes’ still contains many of the band’s memorable
moments, illustrating how six years playing and recording together had contributed to a tight-knit trio, very much at the top of their game.
Recorded at the then-popular Fort Apache studios, ‘Yes’ begins with ‘Honey White’ barreling in on a tremulous saxophone line. Here Sandman sings of the titular female who “made a deal for some angel food” that is “sweet and good”. It’s a thrilling opener, voice and sax high in the mix, as if the singer was intent on putting his fastest, most attention-grabbing song up-front, to show everyone his band could be as sonically-overwhelming as any flannel-shirted Seattle upstarts dominating the scene.
The pace drops for the similarly-enthralling ‘Scratch’, a fall from grace whereby someone who was “once sittin’ on top of the world” finds himself laid low. This sense of regret is
inexplicable to the narrator, how everything could suddenly come crashing down. Now he finds himself “starting from scratch” as Colley’s exquisite saxophone solo comes in
partway through, conveying the destitution, the protagonist’s all-encompassing loss.
Third track ‘Radar’ heralds more sultry thrills, the tale of someone up to no good, with Sandman deploying the metaphor of breaking into heavily guarded property, attempting to
know someone better because “you penetrate my radar”. This time the upbeat, sax-inflected backdrop contrasts with dark specifics: “If I’m guilty, so are you, it was March 4,
‘Whisper’ is more of a slow-burner, piano and tenor sax at a waltz-like pace as Sandman, that poet of unwise trysts, comes to
the fore again. Here his stalker-ish creation claims: “I know it drives you crazy, when I pretend you don’t exist”. We are unsure whether the sotto voce of the song's
title is employed for seduction or something more predatory: “though we haven’t even spoken, still I sense there’s a rapport, so whisper me your number, I’ll call you
up at home.”
Title track ‘Yes’ is more emblematic of Sandman’s own outlook, the singer having positively embraced experience all through his life, living his days to the full. Here
the affirmative is repeated again and again, in varying tones by multiple voices, agreeing to stimulants and adventures, carnal opportunity or musical experimentation.
Side one ends with perhaps the finest pop song here, ‘All Your Way’ with its repeated “Woah-oh-oh-oh-oh-ohs” and lyrics shading into a more idealised view of romance. Because Sandman has now “found a woman who’s soft but she’s also hard”, yet this triumph can’t stop him dwelling on the failures of empathy in himself and other men, knowing that it’s only “on my dying day, I might be able to say… I finally see things, all your way.”
The brilliance continues in live favourite ‘Supersex’, Sandman’s lifelong obsession with mating rituals finding its purest expression here. Over a drum and bass
beat Colley’s sax comes in like a rallying cry, subtly distorted vocals telling of preparations for a big night (“I got the whiskey baby, I got the cigarettes”). From
there we devolve into a Karl Hyde-esque stream of consciousness (“Hotel, rock n roll, the discotheque, electric supersex…”) and a rare moment of humour with
Sandman referencing Bill Clinton, or possibly JFK: “Did you know the President has super-super-super sex?” Compared to the rest of the record this song has a
veritable instrument overload, Sandman playing an antique keyboard called the chamberlin as well as the tritar; an instrument of his own invention which
incorporates two guitar strings and a single bass one.
That’s a lot of great songs without a dip in quality, so it comes as no surprise when the rest of this album casts aside the obvious, relaxing into the
unconventional; white noise and touches of the avant-garde. ‘I Had My Chance’ is a ponderous ode to regret, Sandman crooning “I walk just like I’m carrying
a hand grenade” while ‘The Jury’ is a tuneless, atmospheric piece featuring Frank Swart’s wah bass; two minutes of spoken words over a discordant
background, Sandman’s words rapped out like beat poetry.
Things grow more compelling with ‘Sharks’, a stop-start song showcasing another of Sandman’s metaphors, the performance recorded live as he speak-intones: “stay in
your lifeboats people… sharks patrol these waters”. Penultimate track ‘Free Love’ returns us to the noisy and plodding, an expansion of Sandman’s contrary view that
“love is expensive” so “free love, don’t bank on it baby”. Colley really cuts lose here, his sax squawking like he’s in some avant-jazz combo, Sandman talking of another
mysterious woman who “ran away to Italy with your psychologist, who’s now a scientologist”.
‘Yes’ comes to a more melodic end with ‘Gone For Good’, Sandman’s band proving surplus to requirements for once. For the final song there is simply acoustic guitar
to accompany poignant vocals, a goodbye to someone special. In light of what would happen a few years down the line, Sandman’s testament almost feels like a
premonition: “Life is very short and you don’t love me anymore, so I’m never gonna see you again.”
And there it is, thirty-seven minutes of wonderful music and fascinating lyrics. This record was enough to break Morphine into the
Billboard Top 200 and get them on a major label (Dreamworks) for fourth long-player ‘Like Swimming’, released in 1997. But as is so often
the case, this turned out to be a mixed blessing, ramping up the pressure as the band struggled to invent a sound commercial enough for the American public.
In 1999 Morphine recorded what would prove to be their swansong in ‘The Night’, a flawed finale showcasing their trademark mix of the hummable and the out-there. The stress of trying
to break into the bigtime combined with decades of heavy smoking and the hundred degree heat on July 3rd of that year, inducing a massive heart attack that floored Sandman on-stage
in Palestrina, Italy, halfway through a Morphine set before an adoring festival crowd. This performance was taking place in a beautifully picturesque, remote location that wasn’t the
easiest place for the emergency services to access. Sandman didn’t make it and so ‘The Night’ would follow posthumously in 2000. Since then we’ve had live recordings, a B-side
compilation and unissued music from the Sandman archive, as well as the excellent double-album of rarities, alternative versions and live cuts ‘At Your Service’, released in 2009.
Forty-six is a horribly young age for anyone to leave us, especially someone who began his musical journey less than fifteen years earlier. Unlike the much-lamented losses of Bowie,
Lou Reed or Prince, it’s reasonable to assume some of Mark Sandman’s best work remained ahead of him. But we shouldn’t forget the wealth of material out there, thanks to the
curators of Sandman’s legacy and today’s streaming services. His music is also kept alive by fans and friends who still play live around Massachusetts, and I would contend the best
way to memoralise this stuff of dreams, that sound inspired by the Greek God Morpheus and put out within an all-too-limited timeframe, is to experience it for yourself. And where better
to start than in a positive frame of mind?
‘Yes’ is available to buy or stream from all the usual outlets, at a relatively reasonable price.