Even today, it’s possible to write songs honestly and intelligently, arrange them with a sensitive ear and sing in a way that brings their stories to life. We know this, in part, because that’s what Mark Erelli does. In his quiet way, the Boston-‐based singer/songwriter has gathered and grown a following that values these qualities. Which is why it’s seemed too long to too many since Erelli’s last album of original material.
The long wait is over with the release of For A Song, a bouquet of new songs that reflect where this artist has arrived, personally and professionally. From introspective ballads to celebrations of love’s allure, these 12 songs stand-‐alone as eloquent statements and together as a meditation on life in all its dimensions.
Given the care that Erelli brings to his craft, the long wait for this album is understandable. “I needed to take a break after the record I put out in 2010,” he explains, referencing Little Vigils. “My second son had just been born. My work as a producer and sideman was taking off at the same time. I realized I couldn’t keep up the same pace on all fronts. Something had to give or I wouldn’t get to see my kids grow up. So I let myself go wherever the musical energy was.”
As a virtuoso multi-‐instrumentalist, that meant accepting offers to accompany other artists on tour. “I was touring arenas with Lori McKenna, opening for Faith Hill and Tim McGraw,” he says. “We played at the Grand Ole Opry and on Good Morning America. I played at the Royal Albert Hall with Josh Ritter and began working with Paula Cole, a Grammy winner.”
That also became the inspiration for Erelli’s next recording. Having earned a masters degree in evolutionary biology, he explains the theme that came to mind in somewhat analytical terms: “One of the very few things I remember from high school geometry is the concept of the asymptotic curve. That’s the term describing the graph of a line, which approaches an axis, getting closer and closer, but even if extended out to infinity it never touches.
“That’s kind of like what these songs are,” he continues. “That’s what I’m doing with my life. I’ll never touch that axis, the center of the mystery about myself, about the world. I’m just trying to take it as far as I can and get as close as I can get, knowing I’ll never really know it all.”
Some of the elusiveness at the core of this mystery stems from the twin sides of Erelli’s nature. Raised in Reading, Massachusetts, the son of teachers, he grew up fascinated by both science and music. Each affected his appreciation of the other. “They require the same skills,” he notes. “In science, to run experiments you need creativity, hard work, luck, observation and persistence. That’s also what you need to sit down with a guitar and a notebook and write a song.”
Erelli’s work to date has led to a number of varied and critically-‐acclaimed releases, beginning with a self-‐titled debut in 1999. He recorded an ambitious four-‐day session in a Civil War-‐era memorial hall in 2002, which was filmed for a documentary that later aired on PBS. He delved into traditional country music and western swing on Hillbilly Pilgrim in 2004, leaned in a somewhat more political direction with Hope & Other Casualties in 2006 and focused on gently romantic songs and lullabies with Innocent When You Dream in 2007.
Yet as he drew nearer to For A Song, Erelli sensed that this would be an especially challenging project. “I worked harder on these songs than I had on any previous batch of material,” he says. “I kept going back over them, revising and rewriting. When I made Milltowns, my tribute to Bill Morrissey in 2014, it was actually kind of about taking a break from that process. When I came back to my own material with a fresh ear, I drew on what I’d learned from studying Morrissey’s simple and concise style. I took whole verses out of my songs — verses that I loved — and lo and behold, the songs improved. The message was distilled and amplified.”
This explains the stark beauty of For A Song. Not a note is wasted; sonic pictures speak compellingly with minimal gestures. The first track, “Oklahoma,” opens with a spare acoustic guitar; by the time an organ eases in on the bridge, Erelli has cast a spell haunted by new moons, howling winds and a “preacher droning on the radio” — disquieting portents, perhaps, for “a Yankee boy” stranded on an endless plain.
From there, the title track takes us to a more intimate place, a clutter of “yellowed books with dog-‐ eared pages, wildflowers pressed between … little souvenirs to remind you of me.” Yet here too his search persists: “I catch a glimpse of something shining somewhere in the great unknown.”
And the journey continues, bookmarked by similarly vivid images: an amiable anachronism in high-‐ tech times (“Analog Hero”), a humble janitor connected to God by a circle of circumstance (“Look Up”), and a meditation on mortality born one moonless night while driving across a bridge crossing a turbulent river — “Roll on, river, restless for the sea / Take this valley and wash it clean / Who can say where a soul will find peace? / Who will keep the river from the sea?” (“French King”).
“I look at all of these songs as love songs,” Erelli says. “But each one also hints at some sort of question, some nearly existential cry of the soul. Several songs reference a solitary figure, probably me, just howling out there in the darkness. ‘Is this connecting with anyone?’ Does anybody hear this? Does anybody feel the same way? Am I all alone in this?”
This extraordinary artist, this traveler down the heart’s hidden paths, already knows the answer. “I may be singing from a highly personal perspective, but I think we’ve all felt the same way at times. Everyone wakes up in the middle of the night, wondering.”
And, with For A Song, listening. No answers, just questions — and music that makes even wondering worthwhile.