By Michael Lello
Following in the footsteps of Lyle Lovett, John Prine and Jay Farrar comes Robert Ellis, a supremely talented songwriter who combines an introspective spirit and sly wit on “The Lights From The Chemical Plant,” the Texan’s third album.
The entirety of the record rarely, if ever, leaves the minor keys, which is suitable for Ellis’ subject matter of yearning, conflicted relationships and disconnect. But the album, remarkably, is not a downer, thanks to Ellis’ pleasantly twangy vocals, sweeping pedal steel and strong storytelling.
The record opens with “TV Song,” Ellis’ ode to the escape television can provide. “Oh, Betty Draper/ I wish my wife was less like you,” he sings. “It gets so hard to take her, she complains the whole day through/ And when I get home from working I just hate to hear her speak/ But we do spend time together at least three nights a week.” With the help of his TV set and a little bit of imagination, Ellis can be a pirate or a bull rider. It’s all fun fantasy, until he thanks Walt Disney (“you were a father to me”), a possible reference to a real-life absentee dad.
“Chemical Plant,” the quasi title track, features a haunting chorus, while “Bottle Of Wine’s” simplicity is its strong suit. For the majority of the song, it’s just vocals and piano. “Cheers to old times, raise a glass to the pain,” Ellis sings, then later, “If my heart is still beating, if in my sleep I’ve not chocked/ Come over tonight and won’t you bring along some smokes?/ We can put on a record and I can fill your head with lies/ We get so sentimental but it’s only lust in disguise/ It’s so hard to extinguish such an old familiar flame.” He makes deep, fully fleshed lyrics sound easy to write.
A cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” is brilliantly selected, a great fit for the album’s hazy and sentimental aesthetic. Ellis does the classic justice, without taking too many liberties on a song that is fine as it is.
The gentle patter of a snare dram propels “Only Lies,” and “Houston” is a love letter and a farewell to Ellis’ hometown at the same time.
Closer “Tour Song” covers the cliché subject matter of life on the road – shitty bars, 10-hour drives, etc. – but Ellis has already won you over, and he makes the well-worn topic sound fresh, thanks in part to a side story about how his lady friend has probably found someone new while he’s been away.