Given that the late Mark Sandman, Morphine's brain trust and a prolific collaborator much beloved among fellow Massachusetts musicians, completed the band's long-planned live album, his last project before his fatal heart attack on stage last summer, it should stand. Sandman's musical ashes should not be scattered without regard to their accurate measure, as though he were an indie Hendrix or Jim Morrison, wrung out every time the estate gets a little dry.
If it seems premature to get hot under the collar about such a possible smirch, listen to The Night. It's the album that could generate enough attention to tempt the group or the label to not leave things alone. Although it's dangerous and potentially cheap to apply the knowledge and sadness of Sandman's exit to this disc, it's also inevitable. But it's not a romantic exaggeration to say that this album is the trio's most sensuous, satisfying recording, finally delivering on the diverting-but-two-dimensional original notion of what Sandman termed "low rock." Some moments here aren't just low, they're a tunnel to hell.
Not that it didn't take the addition of a varied cast of extras to deepen the trio's sound. A slim string section and thicker drums, courtesy of founding member Jerome Deupree playing literally next to Billy Conway, are the most noticeable embellishments. Dana Colley's sax sound is less trippy; his instrument finds a wintery Russian sadness, even, somehow, on the few up-tempo songs. "Rope on Fire," with its vaguely Arabic tunings and hand percussion, floats Morphine's usual dread (still, presciently, soaked through Sandman's lyrics) to new territory on a magic carpet. The title cut, which has a vocal melody closer to a hook than any prior Morphine track, is Sandman's "Riders on the Storm" without the pretension to epic, a devastating plea not to be left in darkness.
Almost every song shows how wise the group was to shed outside production assistance. Sandman's limited vocal delivery is made an asset by his starkest, sharpest writing, with both at last moving beyond copycat-
noir to a musical mise-en-scene. The Night is the first time in ages a posthumous release has made noise from beyond the grave that doesn't sound like a cash register. You have to hope Sandman is resting in peace, because no one who hears this album will.