Robert Ellis finds magic in The Lights from the Chemical Plant

by Ryan Snyder

“Just because a thing’s convenient, well that doesn’t make it true,” Robert Ellis sings on “Only Lies” from his newly released third record, The Lights from the Chemical Plant. It’s a statement about the comforts of self-deception that he offers in one of the album’s many character studies, but it could also be applied to the young Texas songwriter’s capacity for genre conflation within its 11 songs.

Deconstructed to its most basic elements, The Lights from the Chemical Plant plays like a roots country record; Ellis’ silky, almost effortless twang is the topcoat buffed to a shine by generous doses of pedal steel and on a cursory level, its relationship to the big tent country and folk on his powerful 2011 breakout Photographs is apparent. Yet, dig deep and you’ll find that The Lights from the Chemical Plant is not fully a country record. It keeps its traditions within line of sight, but Ellis did not really intend for it to be when he recruited famed producer Jaquire King (Norah Jones, Modest Mouse, Tom Waits) to keep his peripherals in check.

On The Lights from the Chemical Plant, Ellis is something like a man both out of place and out of time, but he’s put himself willfully on the margins. He moved to Nashville from his native Houston for a change of scenery, but refused to participate in the machine that dominates it.

He keeps his home close to his heart on “Houston,” but suggests he discovered the album’s musical identity by rejecting the ever-shifting conventions to which many fame-hungry songwriters will readily abide. The song takes an interesting turn from downy soft rock into a fiery, bi-tonal free jazz guitar solo, and at seven minutes long, there’s plenty of time for it to develop naturally. Of course, that would be too easy. Instead, it appears from nowhere like an angry bull from behind a matador’s cape and the song is ultimately better for it.

Ellis spent much of his last two albums proving his honky-tonk chops, but here he’s more concerned with revealing the more sincere influences of songwriters like Randy Newman and Paul Simon. He projects cosmic feelings of futility and frustration on the de facto title track “Chemical Plant,” where he explores the impermanence of human relationships by contrasting a monolithic chemical plant with the insignificance of the small town forever in its shadow. That he precedes it with the cheeky and escapist “TV Song” further denotes the length to which his subjects will go to distract themselves from the inexplicable truths of their existence — “God bless you Walt Disney/You were a father to me, I used to fall asleep with the TV on at night,” he calmly reveals. His syntax can sometimes be less than orderly, if only because it’s a reflection of the complex emotional palette that he’s working with.

Despite the lyrically forward nature of The Lights from the Chemical Plant, there’s still plenty more to chew on here for the guitar aficionado. Ellis shows deft picking ability on the driving “Sing Along,” his most vigorous vocal effort on the album, and one that features rather deceptive accompaniment from Jim Lauderdale — deceptive because the two sound so much alike it’s as if Ellis is singing against an overdub of his own voice. It’s also the album’s most “country” track — he invokes religion through its power to alienate with the line “I was just a boy when they told me/You can burn in hell the rest of your days or you can choose to sing along” —but it feels more like Ellis giving a tip of the cap to someone who is a clear influence.

The chief influence here is no doubt Simon, whose chameleonic abilities Ellis most seeks to imitate. His “Still Crazy After All These Years” is given a wonderfully misty treatment (and another majestic guitar solo erupts from this one), but the convergence with Laurel Canyon-style soft rock is its most prevailing element. Ellis got some outside help in that regard when he included “Steady As the Rising Sun,” a song co-written by Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, whose own soft rock credentials were validated through lengthy collaborations with the originator, Jackson Browne.

It’s these associations that allow Ellis to remain stylistically elusive throughout The Lights from the Chemical Plant — he’s no longer a country boy at heart, but that doesn’t mean he took the heart out of his country.

Robert Ellis will play Ziggy’s this Saturday night. !