If Robert Ellis solidified himself on Photographs as a champion of classic troubadour-y country, he’s letting us know with The Lights From the Chemical Plant that we sold him short. On his third full-length (second for New West), Ellis shows he’s got a lot more tricks up his sleeve.
Two songs in, and the leap Ellis makes on his latest is already readily apparent. “TV Shows” is a playful opener in step with the grand tradition of country music novelty songs, but Ellis is aware enough of the genre’s tropes to bend them to his own devices. Sentimentality and nostalgia are never in short supply, but then he name-drops Betty Draper from Mad Men to make sure you’re still paying attention. Follow that with the “Chemical Plant,” an evocative portrait of a small-town couple’s life and death packaged in cinematic arrangements by Nashville producer Jacquire King.
Throughout the rest of the record, Ellis bucks tradition one minute before embracing it the next. Tasteful string arrangements here and there add weight, while pedal steel underscores Ellis’ twangy tenor. Elsewhere, Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” is given the sort of reworking necessary to make yet another cover of the song worth it and provides a pretty good excuse for a guitar solo.
But it’s the personal narratives that are the most poignant. “Houston” is a bittersweet ode to the hometown Ellis left for Nashville, while album closer “Tour Song” finds him vulnerable and confessional: “Soon she’ll start to wonder what it is that I provide / And why the hell a husband can’t be by his woman’s side.” It’s the sort of road-weary ballad that could easily feel rote, but Ellis’ deft hand elevates it to something much more arresting, something for which he’s proving to have a knack.