In the title track to his new album, “Yesterday’s News,” singer-songwriter Robert Ellis suggests in thinly-veiled terms that he’s washed up. But the album proves he’s anything but.
Ellis isn’t for everybody, and large-scale commercial success may not be his destiny. His voice is expressive but reedy, his lyrics quirky, even eccentric. But the originality that made him a critics’ darling going back at least to his brilliant 2014 album, “The Lights of the Chemical Plant,” shines as brightly as ever here.
The nine songs on “Yesterday’s News” are set against a subdued background of acoustic finger-picking on nylon strings, backed by an upright bass and light percussion. The playing often sounds more like classical guitarist Andres Segovia than anything country or Americana, and Ellis leans into it for long instrumental stretches.
Several songs hint at pandemic themes, and while it’s true that most art forms have ventured past the point of offering anything fresh or insightful about the months we all spent in isolation, Ellis is better suited than most to commemorate the mood. The frailty of his voice and the nakedness of his guitar bleed a kind of vulnerability that fits the moment.
Ellis’s music has always had a brittle feel to it. His lyrics convey exposure whether he’s confessing to his son on “Gene” that the dark frightens him, too, or capturing cultural desperation in a song called “On the Run.”
The latter is a testament to Ellis’s songwriting genius. It opens with a road trip through the desolate West Texas landscape, the stark visual imagery set against an urgent acoustic background. By the time the song is over, though, he’s offered up something that works on many layers.
“Every one out in this desert is just passing through or lost,” he writes, “dissipating to the atmosphere like smoke from the exhaust.”
It could be about the pandemic, or about being American, or about being alive in the 21st century. It echoes the Townes Van Zandt song, “Waiting Around to Die,” both in melody and style. That’s almost certainly intentional, and here it comes off as just another of Ellis’s multitudes.
It’s the kind of lyricism that sets him apart from ordinary songwriters — and makes it clear that he’s yesterday’s news only in the most ironic sense.