“I’m a new kinda broken/it’s getting harder not to feel,” Robert Ellis sings, full of feels, on the soaring single “How I Love You” off his new self-titled record. His fourth full-length album, Robert Ellis offers up a new version of the formidable singer-songwriter. Ellis is at his most vulnerable this time around, both lyrically and sonically, with songs about wrong turns in love and his catchiest arrangements and hooks yet.
Though his signature twang remains intact, Ellis has gotten deeper in touch with pop influences like Paul Simon (a favorite of his) and even Harry Nilsson. We’ve gotten a taste of this on past records, most notably from his cover of Simon’s classic “Still Crazy After All These Years” on his last release, 2013’s fabulous Lights from the Chemical Plant, which was also steeped in an old school country sound.
This time around, Ellis makes the most of the smooth, jazzy keyboard sounds of 70s and 80s pop rock, and inflects them with his classic country-western- driven style. He finds a way to blend these vibes most astutely on the down-tempo “California” and the up-tempo “Drivin'”. The former gives off a gloomy warmth, chronicling the many repeated downfalls of a relationship, as it builds to epic proportions. It boasts some of the album’s glossiest pop.
The latter brings a back-porch pickin’ aesthetic to a tune about being stuck in place, and unable to get out of a rut. It’s Ellis at his country best. He bridges the gap so effortlessly between genres, paying no mind to any supposed boundaries, and this is part of what makes him such a compelling artist.
The theme of trust and the inner struggle for honesty and truth in all aspects of life, but particularly in love, is prominent in Ellis’ lyrics. He confronts the challenges of being on the road, away from the one he loves; the impermanence of life, and eternal conflict of settling down versus constantly searching for freedom. His songs are dark and introspective, even as they shimmer and flow like the perfect pop country gems they are. “Couples Skate” is the one hit of sugary nostalgia that doesn’t come with a bitter shot. It’s just a glowing disco ball of sweet romance that harkens back to a more innocent time of young love.
Epic strings on “You’re Not the One” make it a symphonic ode to buried secrets and anxiety. And “Perfect Strangers” is cut from that same Simon cloth. A cleverly written tale of romance and being at odds with yourself. Ellis paints an idyllic picture of the early origins of a love story: two strangers meeting on a busy city street, eating hotdogs and sharing conversation. And though his pessimistic outlook may seem dreary, (he wishes he never fell in love to begin with), the song still lingers sweetly.
In his songwriting, Ellis is candid about feelings of weakness, insecurity, vulnerability, and loneliness. He knowingly presents himself as damaged goods, hyperaware of his shortcomings and failures, and his songs are better for it. But even as his subject matter veers into darkness, the songs on Robert Ellis are some of his brightest and most vibrant.