Along with the announcement of next week’s digital release of Rob Morsberger’s latest album Ghosts Before Breakfast, comes the shocking news that that the singer is suffering from brain cancer. “As I was finishing off my record,” he says,”I unexpectedly received a diagnosis of grade 4 Glioblatoma. . .the worst manifestation of the most malignant kind of brain cancer. This is not a survivable illness.” Given this kind of tragic news, a critical review of the album might seem like a gratuitous exercise. That is not the case, not for the artist. For the artist life goes on as long as the art goes on. And If Morsberger is anything, he is an artist. If his last album, the intellectually challenging Chronicle of a Literal Man, didn’t prove that, this latest can’t help but do the job.
Ghosts Before Breakfast welds the patented density of Morsberger’s allusive lyrics and subject matter to a variety of musical styles both within and between songs. These are songs that will keep listeners humming along as they puzzle over meanings. This is true art, and the real thing is never easy. There are eleven songs on the album, and the more you listen, the more you recognize there isn’t a loser in the bunch.
The title song, which opens the album, was written as a score for a 1927 silent film of the same name by Hans Richter, a Dada artist and abstract filmmaker. The chorus is made up from titles of some of Richter’s other films, and most of the rest of the song reels off lists of images associated with abstract art. “The song,” Morsberger says, “is really about making art, and being an artist.” This is followed by “The Great Whatever,” a song that rants against a god that allows a world of suffering with a Latin beat. Images like the wizard behind the curtain, the terrorist who looks to god for instruction, the watchmaker whose watch has gone wrong, fill the song, but despite all the negativity some sort of spiritual practice is necessary. “The Distinguished Thing” is a celebration of the novelist Henry James who died lamenting that there were still so many stories left untold, a lament that must cut close to home.
“The Wild Wind” is a musical tour de force that traces the history of the singer’s hometown from the time of the Indians up through the 20th century in a variety of musical styles from rock to ragtime. “A Man of Much Merit” is based on a letter from Charles Floyd, the only man to die on the Lewis and Clark expedition; and “Rocket Science” is a tongue in cheek nod to some of the older rocket songs. “Celebrity Artist” is a satiric turn where Morsberger reminds me of the They Might Be Giants sound (another name to go with Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, and all the others he is normally compared with). Speaking of Dylan, “For Heaven’s Sake” is a ballad that comes close to his growl, except that Morsberger sounds a hell of a lot better. “Cobblestones,” on the other hand, is a more personal ballad and vocally is much simpler, almost sweet in its sadness.
“Christina In Your Salon,” a song about Christina Alexandra, 17th century Queen of Sweden, ends the album in the typical Morseberger manner: you want a song about a cross dressing intellectual who studied with Descartes? I can write it for you. The next to last song on the album “Feather in a Stream” is a personal statement that almost seems to have been written with his health problems in mind, although his publicity seems to suggest that these were all written before he knew about the cancer. The metaphor of the feather carried willy nilly down life’s stream is compelling under the circumstances, and the lush orchestration which ends the song is spiritually elegant. Were it me, I would have ended the album here.