It’s funny that Robert Ellis’ new album Texas Piano Man was released on Valentine’s Day. While there are a good number of love songs on the record, it’s alarmingly disillusioned, not the idealized stuff of greeting cards and romantic comedies. There’s a cheeky examination of bickering in “Aren’t We Supposed To Be In Love,” acts of longing and desperation on “When You’re Away” and a seemingly funny tune about a “Passive Aggressive” partner that’s actually kind of sad. “That’s one way to communicate,” Ellis sings. “I wish you would just give it to me straight”—not exactly the doe-eyed love song you’re after on Feb. 14. The relationships on this dazzling album are far from perfect, but they’re honest, and the multi-talented Ellis, coming off a string of breakup records, sounds more comfortable in his skin than ever before.
Album opener “Fucking Crazy” is an ode to serious, reckless love disguised as a carefree romp. “You make me want to tear the world in two,” he sings. “I lost touch with reality, there’s nothing I can do.” It’s the kind of humorous yet heartfelt songwriting Ellis is known for. Even when he’s desperately in love, he can’t resist some profanic dark humor.
And then again, the Valentine’s Day release date is perfect. On the nostalgic “Nobody Smokes Anymore,” a prickly pining for the good ol’ days, Ellis unleashes an audible smooch. “No one has fun anymore,” he sings, like a hyped up Harry Nilsson. “Everybody’s so stressed out.” Here, his Elton John-inspired piano pop is on full display while he expresses our human need to reminisce.
“Let Me In” somehow manages to sound like it belongs both on the Wicked soundtrack and a jam band’s live album. There’s a repetitive twinkle to it that’s reminiscent of the optimistic rising action in a Broadway show. It’s anticipatory of something. “I’m out here waiting, ticking like a clock,” Ellis sings.
On “He Made Me Do It,” a track bemoaning the devil on your shoulder, Ellis’ Dr. Jekyll blames his Mr. Hyde for a series of missteps (“I said some stupid things and ruined everybody’s fun / And he made me do it”). At the end of the song, Ellis wonders if he’s the only one with a pesky inner monster. “Doesn’t anybody else have a little voice inside their head? / I know I cannot be alone.”
Towards the end of the album, Ellis is more Jimmy Buffett than Elton John on the toned-down twist on “Margaritaville,” “Topo Chico.” On this song, it’s not 5 o’clock somewhere, but 11 a.m. everywhere—Ellis says he’s “just fine” with a glass of sparkling water (a “bubbly libation” with a “focus on hydration”) and lime. There’s no need for anything stronger. With seriously clever wordplay, Ellis brings a fun new angle to the tropical tropes made famous by Buffett.
Texas Piano Man is exactly what it sounds like: a cross between country-blues and piano-pop. Ellis surely knows his way around the keys, and his fifth studio album is funny, frank and alive. It’s a storyful, self-realized album that also happens to be a hell-of-a good time to listen to.