[25 September 2008]
Deep into “Hope Dies Last”, a laundry list of recent socio-political tragedies and woes and the leadoff cut of Delivered, Mark Erelli takes an easy jab at the news media, noting a “reporter [who] does his best to sound sincere”. It sounds apropos at first. Who among us isn’t digusted at the helmet-haired slickness and rehearsed over-articulation of TV journalists, which tend to look and sound particularly crass when reporting on devastating events? But one can’t help but notice that Erelli himself is just as practiced and mindful of his own voice’s ability to connote emotion. In fact, in the sphere of sensitive, quasi-traditional folk music in which he treads, it’s his bread and butter. Erelli’s voice is gorgeous and famously envied by his peers, his timbre just the right balance of honey and sandpaper, but it’s his control and subtle vocal gymnastics that have the greatest tendency to wow. The pipes may come from nature, but they’ve clearly been nurtured toward the conveyance of best friend to news anchor and folk singer alike: sincerity.
It’s a different style of sincerity than that of, say, (inhale) Fox and Friends (exhale), and depending upon the sensibilities of the listener, either more or less believable, but everything about Erelli’s work is crafted to demonstrate the singer-songwriter’s deep connection to the events and characters he writes about, and to impress his audience with his earnestness and insight. So on a political song like “Hope Dies Last”, Erelli’s strengths are a double-edged sword. The pastoral, quiet guitar patterns resonate more strongly than the bombastic soapbox cadences of most topical numbers, and the song takes a powerful turn towards the personal in the final verses, which creates a nice balance against the earlier headline reportage. But the knowing quaver in Erelli’s voice tilts the string of current events and criticisms, such as “In the eyes of the President, citizens are enemies / He’d rather talk to Jesus than to anyone who disagrees / But the phones are bugged and Big Brother is all ears,” towards pandering to an audience that has likely already made those conclusions.
Similarly, “Five Beer Moon” assumes the voice of a workaday regular Joe that hits all of the familiar points: a dead end job in a “gritty sea-coast town”, working for the weekend, regrets about things not working out the way they were once planned, etc. It fits the bill as an adequate Springsteen-esque portraiture, but it doesn’t build on the form or provide any surprises, the way past cuts like Hillbilly Pilgrim’s “The Farewell Ball” did, combining historical accuracy with imagination to describe the dashed dreams of small-town life.
Ironically, the moments where Erelli’s aims are less thematically ambitious are those he proves more capable of transcending. The title track is stripped-down and hauntingly beautiful, a subtly droning organ and simple martial beat providing the perfect compliment to Erelli’s impressive vocal maneuvers, which convince rather than overwhelm the song. The lyrical phrasing of “Volunteers” is close to that of “Hope Dies Last”, but the Steve Earle-ish tune trumps both that tune and “Five Beer Moon” as both a believable character-driven song and as a politically driven one.
Barely into his thirties, it’s way too early for a mid-career or –life crisis, but after early success and a handful of beloved albums, Erelli can continue to remain in territory comfortable for both himself and his audience, he can refine and expand his craft, or he can throw a wrench into the gears and take some risks. Delivered demonstrates a little bit of each of these three tacks. Strong writing and singing abounds, from the harmonica-abetted “Unraveled” to the appropriately New England hymn-like closer “Abraham”, but there’s a sense that a real breakthrough could involve just a hair less control and perfectionism.