Robert Ellis should be mentioned in the same breath as Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson or Chris Stapleton. He's a top-notch songwriter who has demonstrated wide-ranging taste on four solo albums and a John Hartford covers collaboration with Courtney Hartman. He leans toward country, but in an ecumenical way that encompasses rock and pop — especially on his new album.
A guitarist who plays with an intimidating blend of taste and ability, Ellis switches instruments on “Texas Piano Man,” combining his country instincts with an Elton John-ish sensibility on songs that are bracing, sad and funny, sometimes with an undercurrent of restless anger. Fittingly for a Valentine’s Day release, the album is full of songs about relationships. A lot of of them are co-dependent and dysfunctional: album opener “Fucking Crazy” is a rueful piano ballad with sweet wordless backing vocals swelling up as the songs progresses, while “Passive Aggressive” dials in a staccato rhythm piano part as the narrator’s frustration boils at someone’s inability to be straight with him. He’s tired of fighting on “Aren’t We Supposed to Be in Love?” and missing his beloved on “When You’re Gone,” with a list of reasons that border on codependency.
He plays with a breezy confidence on “Nobody Smokes Anymore” that belies his disdainful tone: “No one has fun anymore/ Everyone acts like they wanna live forever,” he sings. “Nobody smokes anymore/ The last years of your life are so shitty anyway.” He takes a more somber tone on “Father,” a quietly shattering song from the perspective of someone writing to a long-absent parent with questions that are more beseeching than angry. Throughout, his lyrics are full of detail he renders with subtle skill, and the songs are unfailingly catchy, in one way or another. Ellis is an original character making compelling music, and “Texas Piano Man” shows him at his best.