Robert Ellis is a changed man. He originally donned the guise of a guitar playing working man on his debut CD The Lights from the Chemical Plant and largely continued with that persona. Ellis now dresses in a bright white tuxedo with a matching bow tie and cowboy hat while performing and on his new album cover. As its title indicates, the Texas Piano Man has also changed instruments.
Ellis has always composed sharp introspective lyrics about himself and the world. That hasn’t altered, albeit his music has become more outwardly sophisticated. The piano-playing singer-songwriter has a jazzy sensibility with a light pop touch in the tradition of Randy Newman and Billy Joel. These comparisons reveal his aptitude on the keyboard, as the piano was Ellis’ first instrument.
The 11 songs on the new album follow the same modus operandi. Ellis begins by offering a common high concept topic, such as “Passive Aggressive”, “He Made Me Do It”, and “When You’re Away”, and then breaks the term down into its many meanings and connotations to reveal the hidden layers such a simple term can contain.
Consider the expression “Fucking Crazy”. Ellis begins by confessing he has always been nuts “I don’t know how to stop myself from acting so insane.” He then tells his lover that she is unbalanced as well—some days too happy, others too sad—and maybe even more cracked than he is. That leads to the protagonist’s realization that this is because they are “crazy in love” with each other that makes them behave that way. That’s less than halfway into the three-minute song. And that’s where the fun begins, as he explores the cliché of being in a bubble of love and not connecting with the rest of society. The world is even more senseless than they are. Cocooning together in isolation is a sane response to an insane world.
More importantly, they get to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh. They are “Fucking Crazy”. The physicality of their relationship suggests the pleasures of erotic connection outweigh the benefits of engaging with others to improve their situation. Ellis sings the lyrics in a relatively smooth crooning voice over a delicately fingered piano. The music would sound right at home at a cocktail party. The contrast between the multileveled lyrics with the repetition of the vulgarity versus the silkiness of the performance suggests there is more to the song than initially meets the ear.
This ties into the elegant demeanor the Lone Star troubadour now affects. On the surface, he appears to be a classy and refined pianist. His music is merely likable tinklings. His voice never strains, even when he hits high notes. Any passionate expression would seem to be a matter of bad taste. However, adorning the songs with finery does not make their concerns any more palatable. For example, when he sings about his “Father”, we learn the nasty details about being abandoned. The narrator lets the parent off with a pass, but the unstated pain is clear. The true subject of “Father” is the lack of having a father. What’s heard on the surface might seem to be an homage to dad. It’s not. It’s the opposite.
Of course, Ellis is not always so heavy. His tribute to “Topo Chico”, the sparkling Mexican mineral water that has become Austin’s (where Ellis now lives) favorite beverage, is clever and sensible. The rest of the album has a more alcoholic vibe. Rumor has it that Topo Chico is a good hangover cure. Ellis ends his record with this song possibly for the same reason. It neatly sobers one up after being drunk on the rest of his music.