Ellis is up and down, but who isn’t these days? I mean, let’s face it, relationships are hard work and force us, if we are willing to grow, to do a lot of self-evaluation. Sacrificing one’s own desires, at times, for the sake of the union, isn’t easy and goes against our nature. If we are fortunate, we find ourselves in relationship with someone who is willing to give in kind. Tinsley Ellis tackles the thorny questions and challenges that test us to the core.
The lead off track, “Seven Years,” tells the story of a broken love, and Ellis plays the wounded warrior in the story:
Waiting for the early morning sun to arise
You’ve got me walking ‘round in circles
Wiping the tears from my eyes
Don’t know how I’d go on without you
But lately I’m starting to doubt you
Seven years, thrown away on a one night stand
From there Ellis struggles with what to do about this revelation. In the blues there are different approaches to this problem. On one hand, the singer just gives in to the situation and sings out his pain. Or maybe he drinks her off his mind. Then there is the revenge factor. The list of revenge songs is nearly endless. “Boom Boom, Out Go the Lights,” sang Little Walter. Perhaps the scariest revenge-blues was John Lee Hooker’s “I’m Bad, Like Jesse James.” In that song Hooker takes in a homeless friend, only to find out later that he “got my wife.” Hooker’s method of dealing with the problem is to enlist the help of two friends, who take the third man to the river. “Three going down, only two coming up,” he sings. He describes the drowning of the man, replete with the image of bubbles floating to the surface. It is bone chilling in its premeditation and cold blooded in its execution. Throw in Hooker’s spooky baritone and it is a convincing portrait of murder. Just don’t listen to it right before you go to sleep at night.
Ellis, however, goes in a different direction. With his lover denying any wrong, unwilling to ‘fess up, he is still able to consider a future with her. Along with that Ellis reveals his own self-doubt:
Lately, I get the feeling
I ain’t much of a man,
When I don’t look for him
To take matters in my own hands
And yet, this scenario plays out far more often than the violent retribution depicted in so many songs. It is a surprisingly candid look at a man forced to accept the awful truth that he is unable to do much of anything to change the situation. There is a quality in Ellis’ voice that makes all this believable, a soft edge that expresses a vulnerability to a world of hurt that has blindsided him.
This passive-aggressive theme resurfaces again later on the album. On “Leave Me,” Ellis faces heartbreak yet again. And once again, he is doesn’t handle the situation aggressively, but shifts into neutral, leaving the future in his lover’s hands.
I can’t, I can’t do the deed
No, I can’t do the deed
It was over a long time ago
But I just can’t tell you to go
Now leave me
If that’s what your heart wants to do
This is a long way from either the broken down acceptance, or the macho posturing, of so many blues songs. It is a picture of a man in terrible pain, unable to make a decision at a crucial moment in his life. It is this all too real picture of debilitating pain and loss in the face of human brokenness that sets this album apart from the false bravado of lesser songwriters. Much like the conflicted characters on Lisa Mills’ album I’m Changing, this snapshot of contradiction is fascinating.
There is humor here as well. “Everything,” is what the love interest will have to change to suit the singer as he describes what he expects. “Hard Work” details the woes of unemployment, stating that the hardest work is getting through when you don’t have any.
Perhaps the best track is the closer, “In From the Cold.” Ellis doubles on guitar and Wurlitzer piano to create a stark, winter-of-the-soul experience. The edgy guitar plays against the piano, and the tone of Ellis’ voice uncovers a depth of loneliness that could only be described as devastating. The visions of winter and the searing guitar solo paint a harsh emotional landscape, one that would be difficult to survive. The theme of Tough Love isn’t about dishing out hard truths to your significant other, but rather about the price love demands of us in our darkest moments, when the way is unsure, the cost is unfair, and largest questions are still unanswered.