Is it possible to be too good a musician for your own good? That would seem to be the story behind the slow, bumpy rise of 31-year-old Massachusetts songwriter Mark Erelli. As you might imagine, with such an enviable problem, his story is heading toward a happy ending, with the recent release of his fifth Signature Sounds CD, ''Hope & Other Casualties." It is an intimate masterpiece, at once his prettiest, most personal, and most political recording. It is also his most purely Erelli-esque.
So why did it take so long for this talented artist to hit his stride? Talent may have been the problem.
''Early on, I think you'd hear Mark sounding a little bit like me, and then like Jimmie Dale Gilmore," says local folk star Ellis Paul, who recorded Erelli's topical anthem ''The Only Way," on his duet CD with Vance Gilbert. ''But now I'm really hearing his own voice and attitude in his songs."
Like a young painter honing his technique by replicating the masters, Erelli hungrily absorbed his influences. But where a lesser musician would only be able to add flickers of style and nuance, Erelli, who performs at Sanders Theatre tonight, could create entirely different palettes for each song, veering madly from edgy alt to twangy Americana, blues to roots-rock. To Erelli, these grand experiments were just signposts on his journey.
''The musical persona might have been a little slippery," he says, ''but the actual person seemed so accessible in my songs that I didn't see the problem at first. It's only the last couple of years that those issues came to light for me."
Coming face-to-face with his own mortality profoundly changed the conversation Erelli was having with himself about his music. Before making his last CD, the western-swingy ''Hillbilly Pilgrim," Erelli's lung collapsed three times, finally requiring surgery.
''I couldn't play my guitar for a long time after the surgery," he says, ''and I just didn't know what the universe was trying to tell me. Was it saying I'm killing myself trying to do this thing I wasn't intended to do -- or was it asking me how badly I wanted to do it? I looked at both those options, ad nauseam. In the end, I just went with the latter, and said, 'OK, if I'm going to do this, I'm digging in.' "
The first song he wrote after that was ''The Only Way," which is the centerpiece of the new CD. It examines his own feelings of mortality in the wake of 9/11, responding to the shattered idealism around him with a sense of renewed moral commitment. He refuses to wrap that into snug homilies about saving the world, however. Rather, ''That's the only way I know how to live."
''The song is talking about what I'm going to do, not what the world should do," says Paul. ''It's personal; and because of that, it turns a little switch on in all of us."
The sound on the new CD is pure, unfiltered Erelli, with sweeping, folksy melodies that are both distinctive and comfortably familiar. Along with several outspoken populist ballads, he offers sweet, wise romances that feel less like seductions than odes to the settled joys of lasting love.
So in a delightful irony, Erelli's most individualistic record is also his most accessible; his most noncommercial work is on its way to becoming his most successful, already posting his highest-ever advance orders and online sales.
''I feel a lot of dumbing-down in American culture," he says, ''and I think people rise to your expectations of them. If you don't expect them to get it, they won't. I just decided, look, I'm in this for the long haul; I'm trying to have an honest-to-goodness relationship with my audience. And part of what's interesting and fulfilling about a relationship is that we challenge each other. The funny thing is, that seems to be just what my audience wants me to do."