Robert Ellis Returns With His Strongest Album To Date
Robert Ellis. Photo: Dusdin Condren
When you’re a singer songwriter, it seems that most people would define your sound around the timbre of your vocals, and I can see how that happens, as it’s something that I myself have found myself doing. However, the overall combination of vocals and the music itself is what should define an artist’s sound. For Robert Ellis, I think most people hear the Southern twang in his vocals and immediately think that he’s a country artist. However, if you dig just below the surface of his new self-titled album, Robert Ellis, you’re met with the sounds of an artist who echoes the likes of Paul Simon, Jim Croce, and Jackson Browne to name a few. Like all of these artists, Ellis is just a storyteller who, no matter what sound you think he’s making, he’s just a guy spinning tales with an unmistakably Southern set of pipes. In 11 songs, Ellis sheds his country past and imagines a world full of lush orchestration alongside sounds of the South to craft one of the most beautiful and whimsical collections of tracks you’ll hear today.
Things get started off with the grand and orchestral sounds of “Perfect Strangers,” where he immediately sheds his former self with lush instrumentation. His mix of guitar and piano alone would be enough to create a stark difference from everything he’s become known for. However, when those signature vocals chime in you’re immediately sucked into the narrative of two people who are essentially strangers in love. I’ve never gravitated so quickly to lyrics before, but there’s something familiar and heartwarming to the track before strings come in and bring the song’s speed down to an almost stop. Ellis could just release this song and move forward as an act that’s going further than his South Texas roots. The craft in the song sticks with you well after the first listen, and it’s a beautiful introduction to the album. He follows this up with the piano-led “How I Love You,” where the country undertones don’t murky up the fact that this is the first standout song of the album. There’s a subtle beauty here where Ellis’ vocals are upfront alongside the instruments like he’s attempting to take over the world with this track alone. His mix of guitar and vocals before the drums create a build that hooks you in and take your ears along for the ride he’s offering. The chorus alone has enough of a hook that gives the listener immediate satisfaction, while the repetitive nature of the song overall just keep that satisfied feeling going. Some of that beauty trickles in and out of the soft and sweet sounding “California,” where we find Ellis treading new waters in sound and approach. The route in which the song seeps along with his vocals telling a tale that hits hard with the emotive nature of Ellis’ vocals when the chorus kicks in. There’s even an organ that almost cuts the track in half creating another sound that you’ll never see coming. The track keeps it simple while giving you a beautiful tune that’s as emotive as it is powerful.
Two songs later, Ellis pick up the pace on the cinematic sounding “Drivin’.” The country elements here showcase that he can still cut to your core with an elemental country sound, although the song doesn’t come off as anything represented in modern country music today. It’s almost as if Ellis transcends modern country with a genuine temperament that no other modern country artist can touch, much less convey in a song. Clocking in at a little under three minutes, the song stands out in a good way as it’s the closest track to anything he’s done in the past. The newer feel to the way the following song, “Elephant,” is crafted makes the song feel like something altogether separate from anything you’d expect from Ellis. The song starts with really just vocals and guitar, but shows what the Brooklyn folk scene could sound like if they had the forethought. There’s a real allure to how the song comes across where it’s locked between traditional folk and singer songwriter themes, but remains feeling like something otherworldly in its approach. The song keeps having elements added all the way up until its closing notes, proving that the Robert Ellis on this album has really grown forward as an artist in more ways than one. This continues on the string heavy sound of “You’re Not The One,” with strings and Ellis’ own vocals creating their own universe before guitars dance onto the track forcing you to focus on the overall sound of all that’s occurring. Even the thump-heavy drums don’t stand out enough to deter from the strength of all of the instrumentation of the song. Ellis’ vocals sit deep in your bones while he sings of regret and painful emotions and you can’t shake how soaked in a mix of despair and splendor that the song creates from the opening strings to their rightful closing.
Ellis drops an unexpectedly somber and ethereal instrumental track in the mix with “Screw” before turning his attention back into the fold of the album on the gorgeous and lushly crafted “Couples Skate.” Where many acts in towns like Austin, Brooklyn and the like are attempting to create an Americana or a folk scene from nothing, Ellis effortlessly incorporates such genres while never deterring from his initial aim of being neither on the track. His earnest and straightforward manner found all over the song finds the singer songwriter crisscrossing into new territories while genre hopping with ease like a playful ghost on earth for brief moments at a time. However, it’s the closing track, “It’s Not Ok,” where Ellis takes the biggest leap forward on the entire album. The piano based track complete with stabs of the keys and drums that bounce on the track to add to the intriguing mix. There are some familiar elements, like pedal steel, that find their way onto the song, but overall this is Ellis in a completely new world and he navigates it with ease and precision just like you’d expect him to. The song really takes a turn into a vast expanse where the instruments feel like they’re playing musical hopscotch while each one feels closer to free form jazz than anything the artist has done before.
This album truly feels like Ellis at his strongest as a performer, an artist, and as a songwriter. From the snappy pace of “Drivin’” to the soft sounds of “California,” this is the Robert Ellis I’ve been waiting for. The album, produced by Ellis and engineered by SugarHill’s Steve Christensen, is a truly beautiful work of art that feels authentic, real, and emotional while feeling like Ellis is right there with you while he sings of triumphs and tribulations. In a world where many artists are trying to be something they’re not, Ellis proves that going with your gut and staying true to yourself can yield something amazing.
Robert Ellis is available on all formats on Friday, June 3, and you can pre-order the album directly from Ellis here. You can hear these songs and more when Robert Ellis performs an in-store performance at Cactus Music on Wednesday, June 1 at 5:30 pm, or when he headlines a set at Discovery Green on Thursday, June 2. The all ages show at Discovery Green has an opening set from Tom Brosseau, it gets going around 7 pm, and it’s 100% FREE.