One of the clear themes I’ve seen emerge in country and Americana that I feel is understated is just how many of these artists are straying away from their original and/or traditional country sound. We’ve seen it most notably with Sturgill Simpson and his new album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. We’ve also seen it other new albums and songs from the likes of Brandy Clark, Aubrie Sellers and Chris King. It’s really quite clear to me that this isn’t a coincidence, but rather artists are getting tired of being painted into a box creatively and want to stretch out creatively. And I think Robert Ellis exemplifies this more than anyone else has in country and Americana this year. He burst onto a lot of radars with the decidedly country album Photographs in 2011 and then started to drift away from it with the follow-up album The Lights from The Chemical Plant in 2014. Now he’s back with his new album, a self-titled effort that continues where Chemical Plant left off. While the country sound is still there at times, it’s clear that Ellis wanted to go even further with experimenting with different genre influences. And for the most part, it really pays off in spades.
Some funky and groovy keys play in “Perfect Strangers.” Ellis got the idea for the song just walking around New York City and the rest they say is history. He came up with this song, which is about a man meeting and falling in love with a stranger on the street. They end up getting married, only for five years to feel like strangers again and it’s clear their marriage is falling apart. They get divorced and just like that the love is gone so it seems. Like a compelling opening chapter of a book, this song makes you want to hear the rest of the story because it’s only the beginning. On “How I Love You” Ellis sings from the point of view of the man, who is now trying to pick up the pieces after his marriage is done. He’s also coping with the lingering love he still has for his ex-wife and admits his own faults certainly contributed to it failing. Clearly he still wants her and wants another chance.
This leads to “California,” where we get an idea of where the woman’s head is at in the fallout of the marriage. Taking on an awesome, 80s inspired folk pop sound, the song starts out about how she reflects on how she was willing to go anywhere with him so she could be with him. Now that she’s alone, she realizes she can now go where she wants and contemplates starting over in California. It’s a song about new beginnings and reflecting on what’s led to it. The soaring production really ties this song together and makes for one of the best on the album.
“Amanda Jane” sees the man realizing he couldn’t change his ex-wife. A person is who they are and that who they are will only grow stronger with time and makes it even harder for them to change. It’s a sad song, but it’s also forthrightly honest and a realization needed for the man to move on with his life. The strings and steel guitar really give the song a perfect feel, while also giving it a distinctly country sound. That country sound carries over into “Drivin’,” where we see the man is now going a little crazy being alone. He’s driving around all over the place, doing chores over and over around the house and wondering around the grocery store. He realizes he’s not living his life, but just surviving.
Ellis seems to take a break from the story so far and delves into artist commentary on “The High Road.” He sings about how he’s getting tired of taking the high road and watching his enemies and “flash in the pans” passing him by while he continues to get older and feels like just another face out there. But he still goes out every night and acting like it’s the opposite. These aren’t necessarily Ellis’ thoughts and more of the thoughts of the man in the story, but it will provoke your thoughts and make you think about the life of independent artists. The string-based “Elephant” sees the exes confronting each other about the plans they had made together. The man points out how they got a house and saved a spot for the baby they never had together. He also says they needed to be more honest with each other when they decided to cheat on each other. The song goes on further where Ellis once again lays out some thoughts on music and genre lines when he sings: “Why can’t the rules be less defined?/How can you call it art when you’re sticking to a dotted line?” The song packs a punch and says a lot in just over four minutes.
“You’re Not The One” takes on a bigger, orchestra driven sound. The man is with someone else and yet he can’t shake the thoughts of his wife. It’s driving him nuts, as all he can see is her face. He tells himself she’s not the one he should want and yet his heart is telling him the exact opposite, yet he refuses to accept it. This is followed by the all-instrumental “Screw.” Kelly Doyle, a Houston jazz artist and good friend of Ellis, wrote it. As for the purpose it serves on this album, I’m not really sure. It may not serve a purpose and may just act as a buffer. I’ll leave it up to you the listeners to decide.
Ellis goes for a throwback pop sound on “Couples Skate” while also adding a slight electronic feel too. It makes for an interesting sound to compliment the song, which is about the man asking a new woman to go with him to the couples skate and be his partner for the night. It’s a good experience and the man doesn’t really want to stop dancing in her arms out on the floor. This leads to “It’s Not Ok,” where they both face reality after the night they shared. He’s still married and hasn’t divorced his wife yet, but he’s clearly in love with this new woman. At the same time thoughts of his wife still linger too. He openly admits the situation is not right and doesn’t know what to do. And that’s where the story ends. We don’t get the perfect, fairytale ending because life isn’t like the movies and not everything works out the way it should. The song leaves us with a long, rocking guitar frenzy.
Robert Ellis’ new self-titled album does an excellent job of crafting stories of love, heartbreak, redemption and life. It also does a great job of incorporating so many different genres together to create some really unique sounds and moments on the album, while elevating the lyrics in the process. This isn’t necessarily a country record and feels more like an Americana record (although the Americana snobs might dismiss it because it isn’t all written by him, which he perfectly responds to in an interview). Country purists and fans of Ellis’ original work might be quick to dismiss this record because it goes so many different places sonically. But music fans will find a lot to love about this album and sink their teeth into because there’s plenty to digest. I enjoyed the journey both the lyrics and instrumentation took me on and it’s an album that I think gets better with more listens. Call it what you want. I’ll call it great.