There are two types of relationships in Robert Ellis’ world: the ones that survive despite — or maybe because of — their toxicity, and the ones that die, often mercifully. It’s unclear which kind he has more affection for on The Lights From the Chemical Plant, his gut punch of a third album of downcast roots music and soft, soft rock.
First, there is the desperate love, as on Chemical Plant,” which on the surface is about endless passion but has an ominous undertone, or on TV Song, which details a relationship that thrives via escapism.
These songs lead off the album, and they’re a bit of a head fake. Ellis, a relaxed singer, barely working harder than speaking, manages to make these loves sound warm. But after that, the pretense begins to fall away, and Ellis lets his relationships collapse, and he sounds even warmer, more sympathetic, more understanding.
On Only Lies, he helps a friend — who needs to hear the truth about her man but who can’t bear it — by lying to her. On Bottle of Wine, alcohol and cocaine undo a relationship. Ellis’ cover of Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years is relaxed, completely fluent in the rearview mirror.
Occasionally, Ellis paints a detail just a touch too literally, and on TV Song, there are wry Todd-Snider-ish moments that are perhaps out of place on this appealingly parched album. But mostly, Ellis stays out of his own way, and as it happens, out of the way of the ones he loves. Take Tour Song, both a plea for a woman to stay faithful to her man who’s on the road, and a man coming to terms with the fact that love alone won’t sustain a relationship: “Soon she’ll start to wonder what it is that I provide/And why the hell a husband can’t be by his woman’s side.”
— Jon Caramanic