These days, it often seems as though Nashvilles soul is up for grabs.
Country music, circa 2014, is a wasteland of bros singing about getting drunk, chasing women and driving obnoxious trucks. The female contingent of country artists, by comparison, fares somewhat better, although in the main, is capable of just as much vapidity.
All of which is to say, hearing an album like Houston native Robert Ellis masterful The Lights From the Chemical Plant is a Music City tonic.
Conceived in the tradition of 70s singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, Paul Simon (whose Still Crazy After All These Years Ellis ably covers here) or Townes Van Zandt, but rooted in the 21st century, Ellis has made an adult record that doesnt shy away from darkness but never lets the songs get so morose as to be unbearable.
Produced by Jacquire King, who has helmed LPs for Kings of Leon, Tom Waits and Norah Jones, among others, Plant spans 11 tracks, which turn from wry (album opener TV Song; Pride) to harrowing (the stunning centerpiece Bottle of Wine, with its cocaine-dusted lyrics and a gorgeous saxophone solo) without ever sounding forced.
Its a record that feels familiar from the first spin, cementing the 25-year-old Ellis as a figurative prophet in the modern wilderness.
The Lights From the Chemical Plant follows 2011s Photographs, which served as Ellis breakthrough with critics and led to his 2012 relocation from Houston to Nashville with his wife. (The transition provides fodder for the bittersweet Houston Houston, you remind me of too many things, Ellis sings.)
The new surroundings suit him well. What is perhaps most exciting about The Lights From the Chemical Plant is that, for all of its assured, soulful songcraft, the record doesnt lock Ellis into a predetermined trajectory. With his ample talents at his disposal, the horizon and his career seems limitless from here.