Robert Ellis: Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis
Robert Ellis
(New West)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

With its contemplative storytelling and meandering, Paul Simon-meets-George Jones melodies, Robert Ellis’ breakthrough 2014 record The Lights From The Chemical Plant positioned the Houston-bred singer at the very forefront of Americana’s vanguard. Two years later, Ellis, at just 27 years-old, is back with his self-titled fourth album, his finest work to date.

Most impressive are the leaps and risks Ellis, who self-produced the record, takes as he expands the typical country-folk palette with elaborate arrangements featuring MIDI keyboards, string sections, ambient noise, and synths. Aided by jazz-influenced guitarist Kelly Doyle, Ellis’ musical vision for country music in 2016 is just as boldly left-of-center as fellow new traditionalist Sturgill Simpson’s. 

Ellis is at his best here when he’s pushing his own musical boundaries and testing out his thoroughly modern take on roots music, be it the convincing radio-rock grab “How I Love You,” or “California,” a pulsing, 21st century update on soft 70’s country-rock, or “It’s Not OK,” the bouncy piano pop album closer that devolves into a grungy-guitar freakout.

These new textures don’t just make for a more interesting sound, they’ve also clearly challenged Ellis to work harder as a songwriter as evidenced on the wandering country lament “Drivin’” and the retro pastiche “Couples Skate.” “Elephant” and “Perfect Strangers,” on the other hand, fall victim to Ellis’ occasional tendency to over-narrate, imposing drama onto his characters instead of giving their tensions room to breath on their own. Elsewhere, old friends and contemporaries like Matthew Vazquez of Delta Spirit and Jonny Fritz provide songwriting assistance on several songs.

Robert Ellis’ self-titled album is the sound of a young songwriter solidifying his blend of East Nashville country with whatever sounds, styles, and sentiments that suit his interests. Or, as he puts it: “How can you call it art when you’re sticking to a dotted line?”

Canned Heat, “Going Up The Country”