Sometime ago, Mark Erelli posted to his website the opportunity for fans and followers to invest in his next album. It isn’t a unique fundraising venture, but one usually reserved for artists of lower profile. It is telling of the narrowness of economic margins in the new musical world order, however. I neglected to respond to the opportunity, and now that I have the product in my hand I very much regret that I spent the hundred dollars on coffees and gum rather than contribute to Erelli’s project.
Delivered is a powerful, dramatic artistic statement from a singer-songwriter who has for too long flown under-recognized while cover shots, features, and praise have fallen on contemporaries. Not that Erelli is better than anyone else plying their trade out there within the coffeehouse, folk club, and house concert circuit. He’s different from some of them, similar to others, and this isn’t a competition, after all. He’s received his due praise from the media that matters, and yet his name is never raised when I’m discussing favoured artists with like-minded peers.
Delivered is different from the other albums of Erelli’s that I’ve enjoyed- Hope & Other Casualties and Compass & Companion– lack of ampersand notwithstanding. As much as I enjoyed and appreciated those recordings, Delivered is of an entirely different breed. The album has more of a universal theme to it, as it attempts to focus on issues impacting our world, even if they are close to home. It is that ‘great leap forward’ that one hopes for those one respects and holds in esteem.
As a non-American, “Abraham” doesn’t speak to me the same way it may to Erelli and his countrymen, but I appreciate the sentiment all the same. When he sings, “We’ve more in common than divides us, but we need someone to guide us,” I like to think Erelli is singing about more than American politics and leadership. This song, with its refrain of “Rise up, rise up, rise up” calls to all of us to consider not only who we choose to follow, but challenges us to consider why we chose to follow rather than lead.
That Erelli has chosen to close his album with such a powerful number is most appropriate. Elsewhere Erelli provides sketches and portraits of people caught in changing times, feeling powerless to activate any type of action.
The album opens with an incredible song, one that Erelli may have to sing for the rest of his career. “Hope Dies Last” utilizes a backdrop of quiet domesticity to facilitate his description of the pressures faced by not only his country, but those who are tied to its fate. While the images Erelli highlights- suicide bombs, trapped and lost coalminers, New Orleans, and myopic presidents- are tied to current times, the overarching message of holding close those you love will last long after specific headlines are forgotten.
In both “Shadowland” and “Volunteers” Erelli portrays the fates and circumstances of those who serve in the military. Both songs are gripping in their honesty and use of language. “Shadowland” is the loudest song I’ve ever heard from Erelli, reaching levels of distortion and anger that rivals Jerusalem-era Steve Earle. The sense of loss and despair expressed by the song’s protagonist is excruciating- “When you’re dancing with a devil of your own design, you sink down to his level every time.”
“Volunteers” takes a more linear path, but the destination is similar. Caught in a war he never anticipated, the National Guard volunteer who had spent his weekends filling sandbags and cleaning up after storms finds himself in Iraq. Unprepared for what he experiences, and feeling the disappointment of a nation, Erelli’s soldier reflects on his challenges. Considering the judgments of history and God, the volunteer admits, “Over here it’s a victory just to make it through another day.”
Not everything is centered on global wars and politics as Erelli looks at the loss and frustrations of folks caught up in their own turmoil where things don’t always work out as planned. “Five Beer Moon” captures a father living on his own, filling his hours with thoughts about what might have been elsewhere. The darkness of “Baltimore” could only occur after an all-night drive to an elusive love; Erelli doesn’t reveal how the story ends, but one anticipates it isn’t with a country wedding.
The pressures of being the “Man of the Family” seem less harsh surrounded by the despair that populates other songs, but to the guy who feels he can “only tread water” in his own doubts, the impasse is palatable. And for the fellow who claims “I ain’t giving up, I just changed my mind” while standing on railway tracks in “Unraveled,” all the signs in the world are not going to free him from his situation.
Erelli has a way with words that is more than remarkable. Sometimes it is a stark image of “roadside trash crucified on a barbed wire fence” (“Unraveled”) capturing a daily observation in a way one could never have thought. Other times it is in a series of lines that captures the strength of a short story- “Small town Sunday morning and the children all dressed up for church. The bells are a-ringin’ and I’m a-thinkin’ for whatever it’s worth that I might find some comfort if I could just learn how to kneel” (“Not Alone”). In “Baltimore,” the spurned lover laments, “I’ve got a pawn shop ring and a yellow rose bouquet/Honey, that I bought in a cheap truck stop. Hardly seems enough to prove to you I’ve changed/Well, maybe it ain’t, but it’s all I got.” Lonesome, for certain.
Instrumentally, the album has a comfortable sound, familiar to previous Erelli discs, but also fresh. Liam Hurley’s drums provide a conscious heartbeat for Erelli’s songs. There is the usual selection of guitars and basses, and the addition of pump organ, piano, and other keyboards along with horns makes Delivered a full and panoramic listening experience.
Despite the elaborate settings of some of the songs, the focus is always on Erelli and what he is singing. The words are powerful, and while I don’t believe a song can change the world, we need songs like Erelli’s to encourage us to have the strength and conviction to make changes Where We Live. To borrow a quip from Jon Brooks: for me, that is what folk music is all about- advancing civilization four minutes at a time.
Mark Erelli has done that with Delivered.