When a song is recorded, its performance is frozen at a point in time that instantly begins to age. But when a song is passed along, it is reborn every time it is performed anew. The same can be said for songwriters: when their lives end, their performances pass into record and memory, but their songs continue to be renewed in the performances of others. And so it is with New England singer-songwriter Bill Morrissey, whose passing in 2011 closed the book on his life as a performer, but whose songs remains alive in the voices of others.
Mark Erelli is one of those voices, and as a disciple of Morrissey, he’s reflected the teacher’s craft in his own work. To repay the debt, Erelli’s recorded an album of Morrissey covers, capped by an original composition that reflects on the bookends of their relationship: the first time they met and the last time they performed together. It’s a bittersweet close to an album of covers that is itself a bittersweet catalog of longing, missed opportunities, farewells, happenstance, wanderlust and resolution that’s sometimes happy, sometimes resigned.
Morrissey’s songs are filled with details that could probably be traced to specific inspirations. He intertwines people, places and things, employing emotions, actions and even geographic details as the seeds of his observations. He steps inside his characters as they observe themselves and others, and distills these thoughts into lyrics whose truth seems to have been latent, waiting to be exposed. His characters struggle with the harsh realities of the Northeast’s declining milltowns, banal jobs, dashed dreams and harrowing reflections of their own mortality.
As drawn by Erelli’s selections from Morrissey’s catalog, love is a restless siren whose call is as likely to be heard departing as it was arriving. But there are bursts of hope, such as the optimism that pours out of “Morrissey Falls in Love at First Sight” and the expectations of “Long Gone.” There’s also humor, albeit of a gallows variety, as “Letter From Heaven” imagines a hereafter where one’s heroes have shucked off their Earthly foibles. Perhaps Erelli imagines that this vision of heaven welcomed the songwriter himself, as the closing elegy “Milltowns” laments the songwriter’s struggle with alcohol.
Erelli’s talent as a musician is magnified by his taste as a producer. Performed and produced in large part by himself in his basement studio, the guitars, dobro, mandolin, harmonica, bass and drums all appear naturally in place, with nothing missing and nothing extra. Even the overdubs of his guest musicians and vocalists sound as if they were added extemporaneously. It’s a mark of his instrumental and studio prowess that the layering sounds so organic, showing absolutely no trace of construction.
The fealty to Morrissey and the craft of his songwriting add up to something much more than a covers album; it’s a personal tribute from someone who knew, worked with and learned directly from the subject. Morrissey’s songs were passed to Erelli in much deeper form than a recording or sheet music, or even a performance; Morrissey’s legitimization of the Northeast as a place from which gritty, honest folk music could spring was a legacy that launched Erelli’s career, and something for which Erelli is obviously deeply grateful. These performances remind us that a songwriter’s songs make an indelible mark on the world as their DNA is passed in an intergenerational chain. [©2014 Hyperbolium]