He liked the song okay, but not the last line of the chorus: “Honey, I know your love won’t let me down.” Hallmark blather, he thought. The blind optimism nagged at him. Robert Ellis’s heroes are meticulous songwriters like Paul Simon and Randy Newman, and like them he worries each word until he’s certain it’s the right one. If he’s even a little uncertain, he puts the whole song in a drawer, from which it may not ever emerge.
Thankfully, “Steady as the Rising Sun” didn’t suffer that fate. It’s the centerpiece of the 25-year-old Lake Jackson native’s third album, The Lights From the Chemical Plant (New West Records), a record that heralds the arrival of Texas’s next great singer-songwriter. A bold statement, sure, but we’ll stand on Steve Earle’s coffee table and say it.
Ellis’s exacting work on “Steady as the Rising Sun” illustrates why. Swapping one four-letter word with another, he realized, would change everything. “Honey, I hope your love won’t let me down,” he sings on the version that made it onto the album. One word carried on its back the dark cloud of doubt that the song needed.
“For a long time, the song felt dishonest,” says Ellis. “But when you swap those words, you’ve got verses about how constant and steady your lover is, betrayed by the last line of the chorus. That betrayal made something sappy become something real.”
For a guy in his twenties, Ellis is an old soul, and a bit of a nervous wreck. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve made a series of foolish decisions,” he says. Take, for instance, his choice to divide his 2011 official debut, Photographs, into two very different halves: an A side of delicate, James Taylor–like folk songs and a B side of honky-tonk-inspired country music. The album sent a mixed message about who he was and risked alienating anybody who loved one side more than the other. And then there’s The Lights From the Chemical Plant, for which he appealed to his label to pony up extra money to work with big-name producer Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse, Norah Jones). New West cut the check and got back a record with nary a song it could easily promote to radio; the album is, by design, a series of nuanced moments best digested whole.
And it’s as hard to classify as its predecessor, featuring forays into bossa nova and bluegrass; a woozy, sax-enhanced six-minute meditation on alcohol and cocaine; and a song that Ellis describes as a “seven-minute nonrepeating word jam.” The album may or may not reflect some foolish decisions on Ellis’s part, but it’s certainly going to be a hard sell.
“When we made this record, I was still dealing with the repercussions of the country half of Photographs,” says Ellis, who recorded the new album in Nashville, where, for professional reasons, he moved in late 2012. “I get a lot of die-hard country fans who are looking for a savior in this sea of shitty music, and they really want me to be that. And obviously, I’m not that guy. We’d play live shows, and I’d see the look of disappointment on some of these people’s faces when we’d do four-minute free improvs. And the folk stuff—songs I really love, songs that are maybe more meaningful—put people to sleep.
“But at the same time,