Song of the Day: Morphine, "The Night"
For years, few things made me uncomfortable and anxious like the impending specter of my birthday. It doesn't have anything to do with aging—I fully embrace the passage of time— so it's difficult to pinpoint exactly where this fear came from, though I do have a handful of birthday-related traumas that almost certainly contributed to it. Some time in high school, I once threw a party that nobody came to (it wasn't for my birthday, but something like that is bound to put you off gatherings for a while). I once took my birthday off to go watch basketball, and during the game I got a frantic series of phone calls from my boss so she could yell at me about something. And the one time I had a surprise party thrown in my honor, I could tell that fully three-quarters of the people in attendance were not into it at all.
That last one might be the nut of this whole mild disorder: I do not like the idea that people are somehow obligated to do anything just because I didn't die in the past 12 months. I've gone to plenty of birthday parties that I was not that into attending. I hated that feeling, and I wanted to be able to absolve everybody—particularly my closest friends and loved ones!—from it.
But because she's awesome, my wife has gently brought me back to the world of birthdays. This year I still got a little wound up in the walk-up to the actual day, but I was able to enjoy myself once it finally arrived. She took me out to dinner. She made me a pie. She threw me a party where we played board games. She's the best.
She also bought me a cool Sonos digital speaker system, and the song above is currently playing on it. Morphine is one of the weirder bands to get signed to a major label during the alternative music gold rush of the '90s. Hailing from the Boston area, Morphine was fronted by an aptly-named dude named Mark Sandman, who played a slide bass and crooned in an espresso-rich baritone. He was backed by a drummer and a sax player, and their weird hybrid of lounge jazz, Memphis soul, Delta blues, and dirgey post-rock earned them a cultish following during rock radio's most bizarre and unpredictable era. Their song was described as "low rock," and it had a certain after-hours quality to it, as though the songs could only be taken in during booze-addled post-coital embraces or in the only bars where you can still smoke.
Morphine's final album The Night was nearly complete when Sandman passed away in July of 1999. He was performing on stage in Italy when he had a heart attack, and since he led an aggressively secret life, it's unclear whether or not he had any health problems leading up to his passing. (His interviews were legendarily obtuse.) The rest of the band tied up the loose ends on the album and released it in February 2000 before quietly disbanding. The Night was not made by a guy who knew he was going to die (like Leonard Cohen's You Want It Darker or David Bowie's Blackstar), but it does retroactively feel that way. Death always haunted Sandman's songs, and even when he wasn't explicit about mortality in the lyrics, his group still churned out a sound that even at its most playful would be considered funereal. The title track of The Night lives in that uncanny valley between haunting and sexy—like the best Afghan Whigs songs, it sounds simultaneously seductive and depressing. I love it.
The Night is something of a missing album—it's still available for purchase on CD from Amazon (in fact, you can get the entire Morphine discography for under 30 bucks), but it does not exist digitally. The reasons are probably more complicated than this, but I imagine that's because The Night was released on DreamWorks Records (their previous albums had arrived via then-indie RykoDisc) and the distribution rights are either lost or ignored by whoever currently owns that catalog. It's likely the latter. I can't imagine there's a ton of demand for the final album by a band like Morphine. But the lesson here is that you should save your CDs.