Album Review: Robert Ellis – The Lights From The Chemical Plant
Somewhat paradoxically, for his new album The Lights From The Chemical Plant, Texan singer-songwriter Robert Ellis moved from Houston to Nashville, the country music Mecca, in order to steer away from his ‘classic country influence[s]’ and lay down an album more ‘stylistically ambiguous’, as he told Rolling Stone. ‘On this record I was trying to channel everything from Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Bill Withers, to free jazz artists like Ornette Coleman’, Ellis says.
His move to Nashville clearly hasn’t been without its hardships; as he sings in the nostalgic ode Houston: ‘I owe it to you, I would have come unglued, had it not been for the city and her light / From Houston I’m moving tonight, I’ve got to pick up and wipe the slate clean’. But a geographical move is not the only way in which Ellis has changed things up for The Lights From The Chemical Plant – it is also his first time working with a producer. And Jacquire King, who’s worked with Tom Waits, Norah Jones and numerous others, was the man chosen for the job.
Given King’s history, his presence feels particularly clear to me on the six and a half minute ballad Bottle of Wine, which, from its organic piano tone to its particular brand of regretful longing, sounds like it could have been penned by Tom Waits himself. Ellis’s desire to take his music to another level is clear throughout the record, and whilst one might be concerned about the loss of that honest breed of country understatement that’s so appealing in much of his previous work, the conviction in the singer’s voice and in his words ensures a feeling of authenticity.
His departure from country purity is perhaps most marked in Chemical Plant, from which the albums title is taken. It’s an impressive landscape of sound; Ellis’s ever-twangy vocals find meaning in the ‘lights from the chemical plant’ while sonic layers – strings, lap-steel, multiple guitars – swirl around him.
While he maintains that The Lights From The Chemical Plant is a pop album at heart, it is inevitable that Ellis’s country inclinations should leak in. In most cases these tendencies jibe well with whatever flavour his particular song is going for. The warm jazzy guitar feels at home accompanying the acoustic and lap-steel in Steady as the Rising Sun, which was co-written by Taylor Goldsmith. Same goes for Ellis’ brilliant take on Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years. Where the record slips for me is in places where I feel he moves a bit too far towards the ‘free jazz’ end of the spectrum – in places like the outro to Houston, or the instrumental interlude in Pride, the stark shifts can feel a little jarring in their context.
In other respects, though, the songs are almost flawless. Sing Along deserves a special mention – a high-energy musical triumph, Ellis says it’s ‘about growing up in the Bible Belt, in the United States’ and describes it as a ‘traditional bluegrass atheist anthem’. You can hear the animosity in his voice when he describes being made to sing religious songs in his youth – ‘You can burn in hell the rest of your days or you can choose to sing along’. The record is capped off with a sound perhaps more familiar to some fans – just Ellis and his guitar – on the penitent closer Tour Song.
With The Lights From The Chemical Plant Robert Ellis has not only shown once again his flair for melody making, but also a musical bravery. This album is worthy of respect.