Album Review: Robert Ellis – ‘Texas Piano Man’

Robert Ellis

The short version: Robert Ellis pivots into piano-pop for one of his lightest, most accessible albums to date.

  • Favorite tracks: “Father,” “Lullaby,” “Let Me In,” “Passive Aggressive”
  • Least favorite track: “Fucking Crazy”
  • Rating: 7/10

The long version: Being predictable isn’t always necessarily a bad thing.

For as bold of a move Robert Ellis’ Texas Piano Man was as he pivoted more into piano pop, the signs were always there from previous albums. No two albums in his discography sound the same, and as he’s progressed as an artist, it was only a matter of when we’d get something like his new album rather than if we did.

Texas Piano Man retains a lot of the core aesthetics of what makes Ellis such a compelling performer, but his shift to fully embrace a style he’s hinted at in previous works leaves this feeling like a transitional work more than anything. It’s still a good album that’s close to being great, but it’s also an album where the stakes feel a lot lighter and the ideas not as fleshed out. In other words, while Texas Piano Man is definitely worth a listen, it feels more like a precursor for something bigger.

As for what’s stayed the same, the answer to that lies mostly in Ellis himself. He’s always been the kind of introspective performer who’s also fairly quirky, and that translates well on this particular project. Ellis is still his same old anxious self, seemingly ready to blow at any minute. All the proof one needs to confirm that can be heard on “Nobody Smokes Anymore.”

But before we further discuss Ellis himself, we need to discuss what’s changed from previous works. Past Ellis projects were thoughtful, fairly moody affairs. Texas Piano Man is, in a sense, lighter and brighter. There’s more of an emphasis on instrumentation and production than before, and Texas Piano Man truly allows its songs to breathe and stretch their wings. “When You’re Away,” “Nobody Smokes Anymore,” “Passive Aggressive” – these are all songs with tremendous solos where the buildup to each of them has some real weight to it. Really, this might just be the first album where Ellis’ hooks will be fully appreciated, especially that huge one on “Passive Aggressive.”

On the other hand, that attention to detail and need for those bigger pop crescendos can lead to some tracks that try a little too hard. “Fucking Crazy” is still a fake-out of a title as when I first covered it, as the low-key atmosphere of it all combined with Ellis painfully singing in his upper register to deliver a hushed performance is a moment where the emotion doesn’t surface, even if the sentiment is nice. “There You Are” is also a track that drowns out Ellis’ voice with the production despite featuring some nice burnished, skittering chord progressions.

Lyrically, Ellis is also in familiar form on this album. What I’ve always liked about Ellis’ projects is that he’s introspective, and while he spends most of the time focusing on himself, it also somehow in turn says a lot about us as well. On that note, Texas Piano Man carries a relatable, but depressing thematic arc. The album was released on Valentine’s Day, so it’s no surprise to hear “Fucking Crazy” lead off the record.

But Ellis doesn’t really find love on this album. Really, except for that track and “When You’re Away,” Texas Piano Man finds itself exploring the aftermath of a relationship and the illusion of whether any of it was real or not. Most importantly though, it explores the effects it has on Ellis’ mental health. Of course, you could argue that was the point all along. Even “Fucking Crazy” and “When You’re Away” are filled with an anxious nervousness that would make the narrators damn near insufferable if the self-awareness wasn’t there to show how that’s the point.

But Ellis also never finds himself celebrating the traditional happiness of love. Most of this album finds him in a state of confusion as to what actually goes wrong, like on “Passive Aggressive” where she won’t even talk to him.

Of course, what this means is that the album is exploring a thematic arc that could have afforded to play things in the same murkier, darker lane of past projects. It’s not that something like “Nobody Smokes Anymore” is a bad track – it’s probably got the best solo on the album. But while the jittery attitude fits in well here, the entire nihilistic attitude toward the health effects of cigarettes makes me raise an eyebrow rather than condone what’s going on.

But it’s not even just a relationship where the loneliness fluctuates. “Father” finds Ellis tracking down his absent father and connecting with him for the first time ever, not as a young boy to a man, but as an adult to a fellow adult. The sentiment is a gut punch in its own right, but when the album explores the deeper emotional complexities that come with it, it makes for a story that feels grounded and real. As he says, he wanted a father, but he’d settle for a friend (the lyric to beat in 2019), and it gets even more disturbing when it’s revealed how much the son inherited from his father, including alcoholism.

You could argue it’s those past internal struggles that shape why Ellis as a narrator is so eccentric and quirky on these tracks. Texas Piano Man finds its best moments when it settles into darker, more somber territory. “Father” is of course the prime example, but the minor piano keys anchoring “Let Me In” and “Lullaby” really help sell that isolated mental state.

Really, it never even feels like Ellis is addressing an actual person through these songs, but rather a dream and a life he’d like to live and can’t due to his deteriorating mind. It’s what makes “Lullaby,” a beautiful track that’s one part denial and one part coming to terms with everything, such an interesting moment on this album.

Sadly, the album stops exploring this thematic arc just as it really gets good. “Lullaby” is fantastic in its own right, but “He Made Me Do It” is another track that only furthers the entire “fantasy” theory of this album, with Ellis bringing in a big, swaggering guitar solo on a track where you can’t tell if he knows quite what’s going on.

But sadly, Texas Piano Man chooses to end with a beach song in “Topo Chico,” a track where, yes, Ellis gets to showcase his charisma in a different way. But it’s also a moment that feels entirely out of place on the album, especially as a closer. That’s my main complaint with Texas Piano Man; it’s an interesting concept for an album that’s not as fleshed out as it could have been. It’s not the shift in style that holds this album back, it’s that the lighter stakes overall can lead to some unfleshed moments, especially as a whole.

But on the other hand, Texas Piano Man may have simply intended to be more of a transitional album overall, with Ellis giving us a taste for something bigger down the road. And to be fair, the production is bright and vibrant when it needs to be and darker and elegant when the mood calls for it. The heavier reliance on piano gives the melodic compositions more flavor than ever before for Ellis, and his wild, eccentric personality certainly doesn’t go to waste on this project. But it also doesn’t reach the heights of past projects nor does it strike as deep of a chord as it could have. Overall though, Texas Piano Man is still a fairly good album.

(Strong 7/10)

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