When Frank Sinatra sang about romance, he imagined himself beneath a yellow, papery moon. When roots rocker Robert Ellis sings about romance, he imagines himself beneath “The Lights From the Chemical Plant.”
That’s the title of Ellis’s acclaimed new album, and it refers to the Dow Chemical plant in his home town of Lake Jackson, Texas. The plant is a metallic castle of horizontal pipes and vertical tanks, often belching smoke. It’s not what most people would call a romantic setting, but if you lived in Lake Jackson, you took what you could get. At night, when the pipes disappeared into the darkness and the plant became a three-dimensional map of white lights, you could squint your eyes and imagine you were looking at a starry, starry night.
“I grew up with those chemical lights and I wanted to use them in a song,” Ellis says by phone from a tour stop in Houston. “Everyone in town’s getting sick off it and hates it, but at the same time, they couldn’t get by without it. Rather than complain about the pollution, it seemed more interesting to flip it around.
“I think that’s interesting: To take something that most people consider ugly and make it something beautiful. There’s beauty in everything. As a kid I used to imagine it as a big city.”
The album’s title track opens with Ellis whispering over a quietly strummed guitar, as if hovering between amorous seduction and tragic disclosure. Strings steal up behind him for the swooning chorus. “The lights from the chemical plant burn bright in the night like an old kerosene lamp,” he croons, “from a car parked by the ocean, what a vision to behold.” The tragedy comes later, as the lovers grow old and one dies.
There’s a similar emotional ambivalence to most of the album. “TV Song” is both a bouncy, catchy satire of television addiction and a confession of the pleasure such an addiction can provide. The pedal-steel-laced ballad “Steady as the Rising Sun” declares that his lover always makes him feel better, even if she may not save him from self-destruction. The seven-minutes-plus meditation “Tour Song” imagines what a lover might be up to while the musician is on tour, and finds it hard to judge her actions.
“There’s not really anything I feel 100 percent about, whether it’s a city, a relationship or any decision I’ve ever made,” Ellis says. “There are pros and cons to everything. There’s this tendency in pop music today to make songs with just one viewpoint. The best example is contemporary Christian music; there are only so many ways you can say God is great. “Songs shouldn’t be there to provide answers. They’re there to ask questions, and contradicting yourself is a form of asking a question.”
When Ellis was a child in Lake Jackson, the messages he got from church, school and most adults left no room for second-guessing: “Just follow straight lines and teach your children how / You just do your job and conceal your doubts,” he sings on the uptempo bluegrass number “Sing Along.”
Ellis’s uncle Richard Joiner, a semiprofessional bluegrass musician who taught Ellis some John Prine and Doc Watson songs, encouraged him to be open-minded. The youngster followed his uncle’s advice, eventually dropping out of community college to pursue his musical dreams in Houston.
There, Ellis self-released his debut album, “The Great Arranger,” in 2009, and later assembled the core of his current band: guitarist Kelly Doyle, steel guitarist Will Van Horn and bassist Geoffrey Muller. Ellis signed with New West Records and released his first nationally distributed album, “Photographs,” in 2011. That record was divided LP-style between literary folk-rock songs on side A and traditional country on side B. The record attracted a lot of attention, but not always in the best way.
“I’d have people come up to me and say, ‘We loved the B side but the A side, not so much. Why don’t you do more stuff like the B side?’ And I felt like saying, ‘If you want to hear that stuff there are lots of old recordings,’ ”Ellis recalls. “I still enjoy singing that honky-tonk stuff sometimes in the clubs, but with my records I want to do something different. I’m 25 and I grew up with the Internet. I want to make music that reflects who I am.”
To avoid being typecast as a honky-tonk revivalist, Ellis hired Jacquire King, who has worked with Tom Waits, Kings of Leon and Norah Jones, to produce “The Lights From the Chemical Plant.” He cut his waist-length brown hair in favor of an indie-rocker’s short hair and goatee. And he moved from Houston to Nashville, where, ironically, traditional country carries less weight.
Earlier this year at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, when Ellis and his band sang “Houston,” off the new album, at Threadgill’s, the midtempo farewell to the city was full of dark colors and unusual chord changes that hinted at the band’s secret love of modern jazz. And the lyrics about moving reflected the songwriter’s typical ambivalence.
What made all that subtlety accessible to the audience were the band’s driving rhythm and Ellis’s spellbinding tenor as he sang, “I will not forget all those nights that I spent / how your lights shone so pretty.”
And, yes, much of Houston’s nighttime illumination comes from chemical plants.
Appearing with the Felice Brothers on June 19 at 8 p.m. at the Rock & Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE.
202-388-7625. www.rockandrollhoteldc.com. $15.