The risks in dealing with things that nobody wants to deal with not only suit Rob Morsberger’s art here — they are helping him define his concluding days with a terminal brain tumor.
Ghosts Before Breakfast, and this is so improbable when you know what comes next, ends up holding an eerie portent as Morsberger ruminates on mortality and death. It wasn’t until the final mixing stages of the record, when a series of headaches and dizzy spells finally sent Morsberger to the doctor, that he was given the shocking diagnosis: Grade 4 Gliobastoma, the worst manifestation of the most malignant form of brain cancer.
So much of the album ends up presupposing what is now be the central focus of Morsberger’s life, during these waning days of personal apocalypse: Holding on to what has meaning, understanding your blessings, embracing the inexorable, awful truth.
Of course, none of this would work if Ghosts Before Breakfast, despite its emotional heft, played out like the lifted pages from a diary — a series of details so personal that they have no life of their own. Mosberger animates these songs with a nervy intellect, sounding at times as angry and gruff as Tom Waits, then as absurdly prescient as Randy Newman and then as darkly solipsistic as Bob Dylan. As personal, and interior, as a man’s struggle against his own looming end might be, Morsberger finds a way out of that pending domesticity — tears his way out, really — with writerly turns of phrases and interesting left-turn melodies.
And so we have a complicated impulses of “The Great Whatever,” a song about someone longing for a deeper connection to something bigger than himself, yet leery of the worldly entanglements of religion. The title track boasts the magical illumination of late-1960s psychedelic pop. “Feather in the Steam” deals with death not with mawkish sentiment, but with a roiling sense of emotion, as the song moves from a torrent of guitar toward a soaring orchestral ending. Similarly, “For Heaven’s Sake” sidesteps convention by employing the stripped-down vibe of a mid-century rock ballad.
Elsewhere, Ghosts Before Breakfast explores thematically outward — finding other high points in the sun-drenched “Rocket Science,” and multi-section brilliance of “The Wild Wind,” which deftly moves from the rusted fury of Neil Young to a toe-tapping ragtime feel over to a baroque, Beatlesque swoon. Morsberger — who’s worked as a sideman with Patti Smith, My Morning Jacket, Marshall Crenshaw and Loudon Wainwright III, among others — is in complete command of his craft, even as his health shockingly fails him.
It’s an idea that, once internalized, is impossible to avoid while Ghosts Before Breakfast spins. The power of this album, however, lies not in that sad sense of loss, but rather in the way that Morsberger can take something so horrifying, so chaotic, so very final, and give it such beauty, grace and meaning.
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Ghosts Before Breakfast, already out in a digital format, is set for release in February. A planned tour, however, has been postponed at the recommendation of Morsberger’s doctors.
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