Robert Ellis’ self-titled fourth album shows that the Americana label is not sufficient to hold the stylistic variety of the New York by way of Nashville by way of Houston songwriter. There’s a bit of each city in his songwriting voice just as free-flowing elements of country, pop, rock, and jazz appear throughout his arrangements. Robert Ellis builds upon the considerable promise of his previous New West releases, Photographs (2011) and The Lights From the Chemical Plant (2014).
The first four songs are stellar, each a potential single while being stylistically distinct from the others. Opener “Perfect Strangers” is a finely polished, country-pop song, more New York than Nashville, with potential lovers catching glances over corner hot dogs or subway turnstiles. Ellis avoids sentimentalism by switching to first-person perspective, inhabiting the perspective of a failing relationship where the partners have become strangers to each other again, “it seems so hard to recognize you, girl / With those defeated eyes / That used to dance like fireflies in a jar”. Matt Vasquez’s “How I love You” is janglier with a solid power pop chorus.
“California” offers a heart-worn sketch of a woman packing up her things after a failed marriage and thinking to herself, “Maybe I’ll move to California / With the unbroken part of my heart I still have left / Maybe I’ll fall in love again someday / I’m not gonna hold my breath”. “Amanda Jane” picks up the broken-hearted pieces of the previous song to tell a similar tale in a symphonic folk setting, with Ellis describing the title character’s inner strength in a poetic analogy, “Like an old oak tree with deep strong roots / There are some things that cannot be moved / And it seems they just grow stronger as they age”.
Moving along, “Drivin”, amply driven by a shuffling beat and a steel guitar, makes the fading daze of late summer boredom sound interesting: “This don’t feel like Heaven / It’s just survivin’ / I ain’t goin’ nowhere / I’m just drivin’”. Ellis shows off a lonely, yodel-like waver to his voice in “The High Road”, co-written with Johnny Fritz, though the symphonic overlay of the early setting clashes with the song’s otherwise high-lonesome tone; better are the Spanish-guitar inflections of its second half. “Elephant” confronts a marriage crisis in blunt realism: “We can adapt or maybe we could divorce / We could jump ship or we could easily change course.”
For an album that starts off so strongly and which contains so many strong songs, the ending is a disappointment. Beginning with the odd instrumental, “Screw”, all the good momentum that has built for eight strong cuts is lost. “Screw” is an echoey, piano-led drone piece, a failed stab at trance techno that sounds like something that would have been added to a 1990s record to get the CD past the seemingly then-requisite 70-minute mark. Similarly, album closer “It’s Not Okay” is a decent three-minute song that Ellis and company extend into an ill-defined, six-minute jam. Possibly a highlight of the live show, but on record, this noodling is unnecessary and actually accomplishes the opposite of its intentions. Rather than ending the record with an emphatic statement, the band sounds confused and adrift. Which is a shame, because for most of its passing, Robert Ellis is an exercise in confident songwriting, creative arrangements, and strong playing.