Artist: Robert Ellis
Album: Robert Ellis
Label: New West
Release Date: 06/03/2016
Ellis’ 2015 The Lights from the Chemical Plant and especially that song itself were hauntingly compelling, so this release comes with high expectations. While no one song has quite the impact that one did, this effort also has its share of impressive songs, takes more risks, and presents a more challenging listen. You might conveniently call this Robert Ellis’ breakup record, but other themes weave their way in as well. His marriage did dissolve in the past year, but the two remain friends. Hence, he doesn’t totally dwell on that subject, but also explores self-discovery and owning up to past mistakes.Ellis says, “I felt that in the past year, lots of constructs I took for granted were turned on their head. With this record, I feel like I’ve gotten to where I can use the material of my own life as a jumping-off point.”
The Houston-based Ellis does not hail from the Townes Van Zandt/Guy Clark kind of songwriting. His influences seem closer to writers like Paul Simon, James Taylor and Randy Newman. Given some of the fusion jazz and electronics in his music, you may even hear echoes of Joni Mitchell. Ellis is not afraid to push the envelope. There’s a restlessness in moods that spurs musical adventurousness. The opener, “Perfect Strangers” depicts how quickly our connections can vanish. The album’s closer, “It’s Not OK” is an unbridled look at emotional compromise with the jazz fusion/electronica infused discordant music chaotically fading away in the long outro. You might not expect the bright uplifting love song, “How I Love You,” the poppy “California,” or the soft rock of “Amanda Jane” on this kind of record but Ellis is capable of quite a range. Dig a bit deeper into those songs and you’ll find many melancholy lyrics too. “Drivin’” taps into that trance-like dreamy state one often gets behind the wheel with the lyric, “I ain’t going anywhere. I’m just drivin’.” It has already been premiered by NPR and will surely receive plenty of airplay. The emotional center of the record is probably “The High Road,” but given Ellis’s role as a musician, the lyrics of “Elephant” are quite apropos. “My heart is broken in two, one half is on the road and the other remains with you.” As if that’s not enough, he follows with the sweeping orchestral “You’re Not the One,” filled with killer heartbreak lyrics.
Compared to his stellar previous effort, this is more daring and more complex both lyrically and musically. It makes you continually go back to catch a phrase or a hook you missed the first time. Robert Ellis can stand right beside Jason Isbell as one of today’s most important voices.
– Jim Hynes