I am a music fan first and foremost. Although I run a Country and Americana oriented blog, I review and grade each album for what it’s worth, because at the end of the day there’s really only two kinds of music – good and bad.
That’s more or less the perspective you have to take when you explore the work of the man from Houston Texas, Robert Ellis. Sure, his first album from 2012 named Photographs was grounded in a mostly classic country sound, but 2014’s The Lights From The Chemical Plant went even further, exploring sonic territories of Pop and Rock that really painted Robert as a true artist. On his brand new self-titled album, he pushes those genre lines even further.
On his new self-titled album Robert Ellis really comes into his own. It’s evident not only in the music throughout but also in the process that accompanied it. You don’t self-title an album unless you really have something to say. It’s more than just a marketing gimmick for debut albums, it’s a way of telling the world what you’re thinking and what you’ve been through. That’s not to mention the fact that Robert Ellis also took the reins on the production this go-around, truly making it his album. The result is damn near a masterpiece that scores straight A’s in all categories that comprise an album.
This album is an emotionally heavy one, centering on themes of love, divorce, jealousy, and cheating. Robert Ellis carries a talent of painting his songs as honestly as possible, and that honesty cuts through thanks to his ability to carry an emotional vocal delivery. The genius of this album is that the darker, emotional songs are perfectly balanced out with brighter sounding offerings, even if those brighter sounding offerings are steeped in darker subject matter. Album opener, “Perfect Strangers” is evidence of this, speaking to a theme of qualities that can both bring two strangers together as well as drive them apart. “Amanda Jane” is accompanied by pedal steel and strings and tells the tale of man who tries to shake the spell that Amanda Jane is under. Her heart is seemingly broken from a past relationship and the man tries hard to break that spell only to come up with poor results. The Bluegrass inspired “Drivin’” may be the only song on here that will please a tried and true country fan with its fun, plucky dobro and theme of having too much on your mind and needing to get away from everything, including a lover who you are having problems with. There’s also straight-forward love songs such as “How I Love You” (one of only two songs Ellis didn’t write here, the other being “Screw”), and “Couples Skate”, which both lean heavy on a rock sound.
When you dive into the darker material on here, it hits you like a ton of bricks. “California” is a swampy pop song that tells of a woman who yearns for a better life in California after having been left by her lover and realizing she has nothing left in her town (“Maybe I’ll fall in love again someday, I’m not going to hold my breath”). Tracks such as “Elephant” and “You’re Not The One” face the theme of jealousy and a dying love head on, the latter featuring an almost ominous sound that really drives home the mood of the song. Of course, the more honest we get with the tracks the more they standout. “The High Road” is a honest confession from a man who watches his enemies succeed only to realize that he’s getting nothing by doing it the honest way. In terms of the album’s context I read it as a way of making excuses for our narrator’s cheating and jealousy all throughout this album while also possibly serving as a nod to the life of an independent musician versus a mainstream star up getting the fame. Of course, the album’s best song and overall theme is encapsulated best in the closer, “It’s Not Ok”, which is a chaotic sounding tune where Ellis fights his sin of cheating. It’s an internal struggle seeing as how he doesn’t want to stop, but he needs to. Halfway through, this piano ballad turns into a rock frenzy that truly highlights the struggles our narrator is going through, also signaling that this heavy album doesn’t come with a happy ending.
I usually save my criticisms for each album towards the end of these reviews, and I have to say I’m struggling to fill up space here. The closest I could come would be to say that while I do like the song, “Screw”, I’m confused by its context within the album seeing as how an instrumental isn’t really needed. I would also say that this will admittedly not be an album for everyone. There’s a lot to digest in both the sounds and thematical content.
But no album is perfect, and to hold off on acknowledging an album as one of the very best because of that would be foolish and unfair. There’s a place for the very best of the best, and I would declare that the self-titled album from Robert Ellis belongs in this camp. It’s not necessarily a concept album in the sense that no song is independent from one another, but it is one in the sense that there’s an overall theme present, and that theme of a dying love is one that is execute damn near perfectly here.
Robert Ellis’ self-titled album is not only his best work to date, but it’s also one of the best albums of 2016 thus far. With this album, Robert Ellis has truly found himself as an artist, and the results that can come from this discovery are the same ones that we enjoy as music fans.
Best Tracks: All of them, but more specifically “California”, “It’s Not Ok”, “The High Road”