For his latest album, Lake Jackson native and current Austinite Robert Ellis set aside his guitar and slid onto the bench of a grand piano, trading his Houston-inspired suit of rockets and rhinestones for a snowy vintage tuxedo. In fact, from the tip of his boots to the crown of his cocked Larry Mahan hat, Ellis is decked completely in white, transforming him into, by his own summation, a “Southern Liberace” or, perhaps, a Hillbilly Joel. And maybe even somewhere in between those two. Texas Piano Man (out on February 14), the album that inspired the look, is pure raucous fun, eleven tunes that demand to be played at full volume while dancing around the shuffleboard table at your favorite dive.
Ellis’s formative years were spent playing classic country in Houston clubs and, on his critically acclaimed 2016 self-titled album, he hopped genres with ease. So for those following his evolution, this latest iteration may seem more destined than surprising. Piano was Ellis’s first instrument, and he’s long flirted with the various pop and jazz stylings of his heroes—from French impressionists Debussy and Ravel, to modern composers such as Bill Evans and Van Dyke Parks, to songwriters as diverse as Randy Newman, Paul Simon, George Jones, and Leon Russell. His peers have deemed Ellis one of the most disciplined and serious musicians in the industry. On Texas Piano Man, Ellis displays his mastery by blending the barrelhouse stylings of pioneering Texas musician Moon Mullican with the staccato rhythms of Elton John. The resulting sound feels like it would be at home in both a West Texas saloon and a Long Island piano bar.
“Texas Piano Man is about enjoying the current moment and every moment to come,” Ellis says. “I want to just move forward, make art, and have a lot fun doing it. There’s no time for anything else.”
And you can feel the spirit in the songwriting. One of the defining traits of Ellis’s past two albums have been the Raymond Carver-like character studies, boasting lyrics that explore in unflinching terms the difficulties of human relationships. On Piano Man, Ellis doesn’t shy away from his trademark honesty, but rather than steer into deep introspection, he often opts for levity—swaddling his message in wry comedy. The first single and the album’s lead is a tongue-in-cheek love song with a title unfit for the airwaves of public radio, and the album ends with “Topo Chico,” an ode to Texas’s most beloved brand of sparkling water. And when he does get reflective, like on “Father,” you tend to lean in a little closer.
“Passive Aggressive,” which Texas Monthly is proud to premiere below, is one of those songs that manages to dabble in the serious and the seriously fun. As Ellis told me, “It’s one of my favorites on the record, and I thought it would be fun and appropriate for the holidays. Share this song with that family member who always seems to ask some cutting question about your love life, or for that friend back home who always wants to know if you are still ‘trying out the music thing.'”
No doubt Ellis, who just turned thirty, will continue to explore his sonic and sartorial palettes in the future, and this ivory-tickling cowpoke angel phase will run its course. So enjoy it while it lasts, because as long as he wants the title, Ellis is the Texas Piano Man.
Texas Piano Man is out February 14 on New West Records, with pre-orders available now. The full track list is below.
1. “Fucking Crazy”
2. “When You’re Away”
3. “Nobody Smokes Anymore”
4. “Passive Aggressive”
6. ‘There You Are”
7. “Let Me In”
8. “Aren’t We Supposed to Be in Love?”
10. “He Made Me Do It”
11. “Topo Chico”