David O. Russell’s 1994 debut film, Spanking the Monkey, features, among other more controversial elements, five songs from Morphine’s 1993 sophomore album, Cure for Pain. Those songs comprise the film’s entire soundtrack and they are instrumental in building the film’s mood. When I first came across the film and Morphine’s music in the fall of 1994, I felt like I’d lucked upon a dual discovery. In one shot, I had found a director who challenged and entertained me along with a solid set of songs that piqued my curiosity. The songs in the film make up nearly half of Cure for Pain and include some of the album’s best material. Twenty years ago, I felt confident that the creative talents coupled in this film would each go onto fruitful careers. Well, I was half right.
In the last five years, David O. Russell’s films The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle have earned him five Oscar nominations while three actors he directed in those films have won Oscars for their performances. Recently, as Russell’s star has risen so prominently, I have reflected on his debut and its inextricable connection to Morphine’s music. I find myself asking how it can be that David O. Russell is well on his way to becoming a household name, but Morphine’s music seems all but forgotten. The most direct answer stems from the fact the band’s nine-year life span ended resolutely when lead singer Mark Sandman collapsed on stage in the summer of 1999 and died of a heart attack, but the story does not end there. Morphine released five studio albums, but their greatest legacy remains the warm, complex, and rewarding Cure for Pain.
Spanking the Monkey spoke to me in a way few films have, but Morphine’s music pulled my interest in a very different direction. The film, though stirring and powerful, still conformed to my concept of independent cinema, but Morphine’s music resisted easy categorization. When I explored Morphine’s music further, I realized that despite their differences from their alternative rock peers, they were achieving increasing levels of critical and popular success. Unlike other bands active in Boston from the same era like the Pixies or Galaxie 500, Morphine did not base its sound around guitar or post-punk derivations. Built more like a jazz trio, Morphine created their sound from baritone sax, slide bass, drums, and Sandman’s deep, resonant voice. Well into his thirties by the time the band formed, Sandman’s vocal delivery contributed a decidedly adult component to Morphine’s music. Clear, knowing, and unhurried, Sandman’s voice sounded worlds apart from many of the vocalists I was obsessed with at that point. Although the band’s makeup might seem an exercise in minimalism, Cure for Pain conjures lush textures and atmospheres from its stripped down pieces. Moving from raucous tales of excess to delicate moments of introspection, the album contains all of the great songs featured in Russell’s film, like “Sheila” and “Thursday,” but places them in a context that allows them to achieve a greater, collective level of meaning and significance.
Cure for Pain remains a marvel of sequencing and structure, in part, because it pulls together such a diverse array of song tempos, lyrical devices, and applications of each band member’s considerable talents. Opening and closing with two brief, instrumental tracks, the album bears the markers of a lifespan. “Dawna” consists of just two elements: Dana Colley’s saxophone and a sustained note played on an organ. The saxophone’s notes played in slow progression fade in volume throughout the track’s short running time. Serving as an announcement and a bit of stage setting, “Dawna” provides the album a calm awakening to morning or, just as easily, a birth. Arriving about 35 minutes later, “Miles Davis’ Funeral” supplies the album its end, or death, by way of a haunting sound collage featuring the album’s most prominent use of guitar. Hand drumming, acoustic guitar, and textured percussion provide the foundation for a highly processed, yet plaintive electric guitar solo. The experimental quality of the solo could be a tilt of the hat to Davis’ fearless exploration of sound, but the song upholds the overall tone of an earnest elegy. Cure for Pain arrived almost exactly two years after Miles Davis’ death and this timing lends “Miles Davis’ Funeral” an odd sense of relevance. After two years, those who had something to say or play about Davis’ passing must have had plenty of opportunities to do so, but this comes along two years later; a short, beautiful album closer that hints at Davis’ legacy and raises more questions than it answers.
In between these markers, Sandman’s lyrics apply a warts-and-all openness to songs encapsulating the ups and downs that attend life. Addiction, heartbreak, joy, fear, infidelity, regret, desire, guilt, and notions of self-worth all weave into the fabric of the album. “In Spite of Me” serves as the album’s midpoint, quietest moment, and its emotional heart. Accompanied by mandolin and sparse percussion, Sandman’s voice hovers just over a whisper as he addresses his subject; someone who has gone on to much greater things after the two of them spent time together. Placing this patently mid-life song squarely in the middle of the album reinforces the overall structure and allows a moment of reflection within the flow of songs. Like the songs that bookend the album, “In Spite of Me” works outside of the band’s usual trio arrangement, in this case: no saxophone and barely any percussion. This shift thrusts the listener’s attention to the speaker’s hushed, humbled contemplation of the realization that someone is likely much better off without him. As a centerpiece, this song highlights how well Cure for Pain manages to balance the pain of living with a true sense of wonder.
Morphine’s four other studio albums each have their strengths, but none of them possess the cohesion, resonance, or chemistry of Cure for Pain. In 1997, Morphine graduated to a major label with the release of Like Swimming (their last before Sandman’s death) and although their albums had garnered consistently positive reviews and their fanbase grew over the decade, they never attained mainstream success. In 1996, I saw Morphine perform at the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia and it was a joy to watch these three musicians create such remarkable music. As frontman, Sandman put on a hell of a show and impressed me with his versatility, humor, and poise. The untimely death of a lead singer casts a melancholy shadow over any band and this is especially the case for Morphine both because their music addressed the struggles of life and mystery of death so directly and because they disbanded promptly after Sandman’s death. For a brief time, Morphine contributed something to music that no one had ever really done before and Cure for Pain exhibits this band at the height of their powers. Listening to this album may not, in fact, cure all that ails you, but its many pleasures remain potent and gratifying reminders of the beauty of life’s endeavor.
- John Parsell