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The anti-heroic American landscape is cluttered with men moving around. John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom burns down the turnpikes in his shiny American car; John Cheever’s Neddy Merrill “swims the county” in his Northeastern suburb, making his way from swimming pool to swimming pool. These embodiments of postwar anomie were soon joined by a cinematic horde: motorcycle hippies, hitchhikers, criminals and others who took the stories of lost boys nationwide. Bruce Springsteen turned the central observation of those films — “The highway is alive tonight” — into a rock ‘n’ roll myth about migration and masculinity, celebrating the romance of turning escape into a mission. Forty years of steel-horse anthems, cop shows and space operas later, guys are still drifting off into new atmospheres of solitude, via Mars or the rough historic landscapes of The Revenant.
Robert Ellis enters this artistic realm on his self-titled fourth solo album, which considers the tilted fulcrum of a dissolving marriage to confront the allure and the cost of restlessness. In gorgeous arrangements that span a wide range of singer-songwriterly approaches to rock and soul, Ellis builds stories of love pursued, deflected, damaged and submerged — though never totally lost — as a way of confronting the limits human imperfection places on all kinds of intimacy, including self-knowledge. “Why can’t I tell you the way I feel?” he sings in the bluegrass-stained “Elephant,” which is about the boxes lovers, and also artists, construct for themselves. “Like my dishonesty and my ego made a deal.”
Taking a hard look at his ego, Ellis risks making himself appear unsavory throughout this song cycle: alternately jealous and philandering, unable to let go of his ideals about sex and emotion even as he grows angry at what those expectations are doing to the women upon whom he hangs them. “The high road is wearing me down,” he moans in his best Hank Williams tenor in the pensive waltz that bears that title; he’s lamenting the vagaries of artistic success, but he uses the language of morality because he realizes that the search for such set terms compels him, even as he continually violates them.
Robert Ellis is very apparently a breakup album, a challenging endeavor in this year of Beyoncé‘s gauntlet of women’s blues, Lemonade. From a different corner of the musical universe, in an utterly different voice than one Jay-Z would ever employ, Ellis (who, it happens, hails from Beyoncé’s hometown of Houston) speaks for the man who strayed, betrayed and regretted. Instead of returning to the nest, however, he accepts his exile. Other women besides the obvious central one present new problems. The album’s 11 songs confront all kinds of betrayals and misunderstandings, with our antihero accruing wisdom that he discovers he can only fitfully employ. Ellis has pushed the clouds away; he’s more self-aware, but hardly recovered. “Maybe I’m destined to repeat myself,” he snaps. “Don’t you think I’d learn from my mistakes?” There’s no reconciliation here; only more work to be done.
If this sounds like a bitter journey, Ellis’s musical daring and impeccable songcraft render it beautiful. He’s the kind of artist that a descriptive like “Americana” can only partially serve; what he takes from obvious inspirations like Paul Simon, Charlie Rich and Joni Mitchell is as much a commitment to musical eclecticism as a facility for storytelling. Songwriters bent on upholding “quality” music can often fall into a pastoral rut; into a refinement that becomes banal. Not Ellis. The restlessness that his characters exhibit also underlies his musical impulses. He’s worked with his band (especially guitarist and occasional co-writer Kelly Doyle) to develop a sound that taps into rock, R&B, bluegrass and country without cutting corners. He’s also found peers who push him further, including Angaleena Presley, Jonny Fritz and Delta Spirit‘s Matthew Logan Vasquez, who all contribute here.
Robert Ellis should put Ellis on the same level as recent guitar auteurs like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, but his true soulmate might be the L.A. songwriter Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley, The Postal Service, et al), who also grasps the usefulness of an acid tongue, and who’s just as likely to push out of the safe space of simple balladry. In “California,” Ellis puts aside his own urge to ramble and imagines a woman’s instead; she’s packing up plates, remembering fights and dreaming of California. Lewis might have written this song; she might as well be its heroine. Like her, Ellis gets that the unbroken part of the heart will always push its owner toward another border. That’s a hard reality not only antiheroes can grasp.