The quality of mystery is undervalued in music these days. It's often mimicked via indecipherable lyrics, mumbled vocals or spooky sound effects, but that's not the real stuff. Rarely does anyone touch upon that delicate, open-ended state of unknowing that can descend on any given day, whether you're locked in a lover's embrace or just sitting in front of the television.
Robert Ellis is pursuing that kind of mystery. Since moving from Houston to Nashville in 2012, the 25-year-old has further cultivated an approach that was always a little more elegant than that of the average guitar strummer. On his third album — and best so far — Ellis incorporates what he's learned from elders across genres. His own contribution is an imaginative grace that lends his stories of difficult romance, hard living and occasional redemption the depth of ambiguous possibility.
There's a perfectly executed Paul Simon cover; a novelty song Tom T. Hall would enjoy; a love song or two performed in the delicate style of Willie Nelson, to whom Ellis owes a significant debt vocally; and the title track, a tale of two sweethearts surviving within a dying urban landscape that could have been set in a certain New Jersey boss' stomping ground instead of on the Texas Gulf Coast.
The mood of these songs varies from rakish to meditative to despairing; at one point, Ellis rewrites Billy Joel's "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" with cocaine in place of the pasta. Each offers the gift of an all-absorbing listening experience. It's the same thing Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe did to shake up Nashville last year, but this time in a gentle and virtuosic man's voice.
There are no trucks or Solo cups on The Lights From the Chemical Plant. There's also very little banjo. Ellis eludes categorization within either mainstream country or Americana music by going the route of both formats' greatest maverick craftsmen; you'll hear Merle Haggard here along with Willie Nelson, and a bit of Rodney Crowell's sparkle. Producer Jacquire King, who worked with Tom Waits before becoming one of Nashville's most sought-after category-busters, sets Ellis' tenor (he also plays multiple instruments) within clean, colorful arrangements. Members of Deer Tick and Dawes join Ellis and his touring band, and Jim Lauderdale gives his blessing by way of a guest backing vocal. Together, these mostly young talents have made a set that pays respect to the past but becomes contemporary through Ellis' dedication to those elusive feelings, painful or exquisite or both, that tickle us with the reminder that we are alive.