Robert Ellis & “The Lights From The Chemical Plant”

February 21, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  15 Comments


At any point in the greater country music realm, there’s going to be that one artist that sets the cutting edge for artistic expression and critical merit to where a consensus surrounds them as someone other artists should measure themselves against. They make critics swoon and cultured music fans nod with approval, as NPR, American Songwriter, and other such outlets regale them with the highest accolades, no matter how much their music may remain elusive from the mainstream perspective.

Texas native and current Nashvillian Robert Ellis is certainly a candidate to take that critical acclaim baton from Jason Isbell and run with it as an artist who seems to effortlessly deliver songs with cutting emotional moments in an awe-inspiring display of deft creativity. His much-anticipated new album Lights From The Chemical Plant is full of those instances that give you shivers from their bold illustration of wit and self awareness. There’s this sort of graceful command to his songwriting, a confidence beyond his 25 years, to where even when he turns a phrase that you can anticipate or that feels tired, he’ll throw a little hitch in the timing almost as to announce to the listener it’s cliche, in turn erasing the banality of the moment.

robert-ellis-lights-from-the-chemical-plantThe last album from Robert Ellis, 2011’s Photographs, started out as a mostly-acoustic work that trended toward a downright honky tonk sound by the end, and won him deserved critical praise. The Lights From The Chemical Plant, though certainly with its country moments, is overall more of a classic pop album, referring to influences like a post-Garfunkel Paul Simon and James Taylor. The first song on the album “TV Song” is very much out of the Randy Newman playbook, full of irony, but graced with such a loving perspective for its object of ire, you can’t help but be awed by the intellectual skill such a song displays.

“Hipster” is an often-overused and ill-defined term for people to describe others that they generally don’t understand and that happen to be young, and many times white. As time marches on, hipsters seem to be standing out less, and the term generally tends to just represent young artistic-minded white people in general who rely on elements such as exclusiveness and irony to define their cultural attributes. Their perspective is steeped in a whole new set of parameters compared to the multiple generations of slightly older to much older music listeners from many past generations whose musical understanding is centered around structured ideas of eras, genres, and generational gaps.

Many 25-year-olds don’t hate their parents, and never did. There’s not that inherent sense of emptiness and despair, but a sense of quiet celebration. With The Lights From The Chemical Plant, Ellis celebrates the other side of his musical upbringing, that likely wasn’t presented to him as being in conflict with his country roots, but in concert with them. However, much of the current Robert Ellis sound still emanates from the acoustic guitar and pedal steel. The de facto title track “Chemical Plant” is a sweeping, rising, memory-inducing song, very much bemoaning the march of progress and time no different than more accessible country music fare might, just conveyed in a much more intelligent way.

“Steady As The Rising Sun” takes a dedicated look in the liner notes to convince one it was not indeed written by James Taylor, while Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” is a little more obvious as a cover. There are a few very long songs on this album, and at times it becomes somewhat of a problem. The 6 1/2-minute “Bottle of Wine” does a good job capturing a sullen, Tom Waits-esque mood, but the tone of the piano seems a little to resonant and bright, and the song just goes on a little too long to maintain the mood or story. “Houston” is one of the album’s best at highlighting Robert’s strength of songwriting, but the fusion jazz-like ending gets buried somewhat, despite its functionality at offering something different and spicy for the album.

The 7-minute “Tour Song” however could probably go on even longer in the way Ellis weaves a masterful web of language clearly told from his own, heartfelt perspective. “Pride” and “Only Lies” work very well in a way that is unique and new, but that also refers back to the classic mode of 70’s songwriter material. “Sing Along” is the up-tempo, and most-decidedly country song on the album, though it’s counter-religious message might ruffle its core sonic audience. Appeal for “Good Intentions” will be much more universal. In an album with a fiercely artistic bent, this song is rousing and infectious without compromising it’s substance and creativity.

The “Not For Everyone” stamp should be slapped in red letters across the cover of this album, especially for people who consider themselves more country fans than Americana or singer-songwriter fans. But Robert Ellis has done superlative work, and will be graced by the singing praises of critics and cultured roots fans that will likely last all the way until they compile their end-of-year lists.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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15 Comments to “Robert Ellis & “The Lights From The Chemical Plant””

  • I wanted nothing more to drink this album pretty. I needed to hip-up my music repertoire and a new release from a critically acclaimed member of the new heartworn generation seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. But no matter how many times I listen to “The Lights from the Chemical Plant,” I can’t find anything that appeals to my taste. There’s nothing song-like or creative about the songs. The album is just a collection of meandering thoughts set to generic 70’s light rock production. I liken the album to sitting in the waiting room at the dentists office and you’re overhearing bits and pieces of all the other patients conversations’ and being so thankful you’ll be leaving the room soon to get a root canal.


    • Ouch.

      Like I said above, this album certainly is not for everyone, and I certain can’t argue with anyone who says it doesn’t fit their sensibilities.


  • I need to listen to it more but I like the sound of it so far.

    Is it just me, or does this guy sound a little like Eric Church’s mellow younger brother?


    • It kept reminding me of Joe Nichols.


  • Heard this album online for the first time last week and immediately ordered it along with Lydia Loveless’s new release. I love the songwriting and the sound. He’s playing about 30 mins from me tonight but unfortunately most of my friends are rubes that would rather see Luke Bryan hip thrust and sing about jacked up trucks, so I won’t be making the show.


  • Hmm, I kinda like those three songs. “Sing Along” was definitely my favorite, but it is a bit odd to hear such a blatantly anti-Christian lyrics over music that sounds like that.


    • Agree. In an interview and live cut of this song on YouTube, Robert talks about these sentiments and it is quite surprising…. Especially since he grew up with heavy involvement in the church. It makes you wonder what set him off to change his mind/heart so sharply in the other direction.


  • I was wondering if you would get around to reviewing this. So far, i love about a third of the songs, and I’m hoping the rest grow on me. Robert Ellis has always been a little hit or miss for me, but when he hits, he hits hard.


  • I like it.

    the music of today’s young people, ( I mean the real music, not the top forty for 12 year olds)

    is so down. Sturgill has some of the saddest tunes I’ve heard.

    A lot of the music I grew up with, from the sixties, was for the most part pretty happy.

    not any more. I understand why.

    For the young people of today, tough times right now, and not looking to get much better


  • at’s an interesting observation and I think it’s definitely true…which is yet another reason I’m such a fan of good / real music….not to beat a dead horse but in comparison to most of the music you hear on the radio / tv (main themes / subject matter = partying / good times / living the high life / luxury and/or material goods etc) I think it’s so much more reflective & honest to how real life is for the majority of us…

    it’s definitely a different direction than photographs (which I really liked) but I think it’s a great album overall

    Also a good review I was curious if this would be on here or not since it doesn’t fit neatly into any genre / category

    I guess this mean I’m a hipster since I like it….dang…..I don’t hate my parents either that’s two strikes….jokes aside, that was a good little commentary (hipster part of review) regarding the generational differences of ideas about genres etc and imo pretty applicable to this album (& many other musicians I’m a big fan of)…I get tired of the exact same thing over & over and think his albums, regardless of style/sound/whatever will continue to impress**

    **me and the music critics at least, if nobody else!


  • I read this article because of the lead in on the main page claiming that Mr. Ellis is ” a candidate to take that critical acclaim baton from Jason Isbell and run with it” …. I’m sorry Trig, but I just don’t see it happening, especially on the merits of this new release.It’s not his best work. It sounds like he’s been taking too many “pointers” from music row. He needs to go back to Austin and keep writing his Texas twinged music in my opinon. It comes across more raw and palatable. “Westbound Train” or “Friends Like Those” are better examples of Robert Ellis on his “A” game.
    I like Robert Ellis. I’ve seen him perform with OCMS about a year ago in Orlando. While I do think he’s an incredible songwriter and has his moments where he’s equal to some of Isbell’s stuff, I just don’t think he’s pound for pound as good of a wordsmith. But then again, I’m probably an Isbell mark, as I would put him up against any songwriter in the business right now and say he’s as good or better than them.


    • The reason I included that parallel with Jason Isbell is because I think this album and Robert Ellis are destined to receive critical acclaim in a similar vein that Jason Isbell did in 2013. This comment shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum though. I considered Jason Isbell’s album an Album of the Year candidate, when I didn’t even give this one a top grade. I also spoke pretty in depth about his break from the country sound, though I wouldn’t in any way characterize it as anything having to do with Music Row. In the end I have to critique this album as an album, not a country album. I too wish Robert would have stuck closer to his country sound, but he’s a young artist, and has plenty of time to come back to that.


  • I heard Robert Ellis open for Jason Isbell over a month ago and loved his performance. He’s got great stage presence and style. Then I had to look up his album and really enjoyed it. A couple songs on there don’t do it for me, but for the most part it works. “Sing Along” is definitely one of my favorites.


    • Yes Anna that’s one of my favourites too, along with the “title” song. Great album, I think he is going places.


  • This album and seeing him live knocked me out. I think he’s a real star in the making, but I can see why he’s controversial on the country scene. His cover of ‘The Grand Tour’ is heartbreaking, when I never thought anyone could break my heart like George…


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