In 2017, Dennis Ellsworth needed to make a new album. And it was an emergency.
So, who better to call for assistance than Joel Plaskett, who assumed production duties and enlisted his friends, Charles Austin and Dave Marsh, to fully participate. The result IS Ellsworth’s fifth solo LP, Things Change, a brilliant convergence of his irresistible power pop songwriting chops with Plaskett and co.’s trademark vintage guitar-driven sound.
In the past, Prince Edward Island native Ellsworth has never hesitated to seek out the right people for specific projects. It’s led him to build an impressive body of work in conjunction with producer David Barbe (Drive-By Truckers, Sugar), along with CanRock heroes such as Josh Finlayson (Skydiggers, Gord Downie), Hugh Christopher Brown, and Tim Bovaconti (Ron Sexsmith). However, teaming up WITH Plaskett at Joel’s New Scotland Yard studio in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia became a totally immersive experience for Ellsworth that opened up many new creative possibilities.
Ellsworth certainly came more prepared than he ever had before, having spent a considerable amount of time crafting home demos, which he says allowed him to conceive an overall framework for the album rather than viewing it as 12 individual songs. It also gave Plaskett plenty of opportunities to offer his ideas and build on the hooks Ellsworth had already devised.
After two decades of making music in various incarnations, Ellsworth chalks up what he’s accomplished on Things Change in large part to simply being older and wiser. “For years I wrote dark, smooth, romantic alt-country-ish type songs,” he says. “I don’t know how I ever got there but I stuck with it for a while. I love those records, but I knew it was time I switched things up just to keep myself interested.
“So, now that it’s happened, I feel like I’ve entered into this new land of possibility and I’m gonna ride that wave for a bit. I also think my songwriting is getting stronger with every album. I feel like I’ve found a way to get a message across with the perfect balance. It’s still poetic but does a much better job of drawing a listener in with clear messages and some great combinations of words.”
That’s evident right from the new album’s opening track, “The Bottom,” which captures the raw energy of Ellsworth and the band playing essentially live in the studio. It was a conscious choice to leave in a snippet of studio chatter at the beginning since it underscores the magical moment when all of the musicians click and the song takes off in a rush of ‘90s-influenced guitars. That chemistry is also wonderfully captured on the title track, the third of four takes.
However, Ellsworth points to the songs “Absent Mind” and “Caught In The Waves” as clearer examples of how his writing process evolved in the year leading up to the sessions for Things Change. “I went through a period of confusion, complacency and procrastination,” he says. “It was almost like I was frozen in my tracks. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be a part of the music industry anymore in 2016 and I had no idea what I wanted to write about anymore. All I knew was I wanted to turn the volume. ‘Absent Mind’ is a lighthearted take on knowing that you’ve let things slide and dealing with the consequences.
“‘Caught in the Waves’ is an extension of that state of confusion. I also stopped drinking in 2017 and getting sober has been an interesting journey. I think parts of this song are about knowing you’re sinking from alcohol consumption and acknowledging that you need to make a change for your health. It deals with being off balance in a relationship, whether its love or booze.”
But while Ellsworth may have cut alcohol out of his routine, his support for a certain soon-to-be-legalized substance is displayed on “Stoned,” a song poised to become an unofficial new Canadian anthem starting July 1, 2018. It beautifully ties a bow on an album that, in total, echoes the blissful era of Big Star and Cheap Trick and their later acolytes Teenage Fanclub, The Lemonheads and Matthew Sweet…. not to mention the Joel Plaskett Emergency.
“When I set out to make this record I instinctively felt it would be with Joel,” Ellsworth says. “I knew that we had a lot of similar tastes, and when we started sifting through the songs he picked up on a lot of the influences, which was great. I got nostalgic in my listening patterns and it naturally started to inform my writing because I’m basically a music sponge. It comes to me from so many angles and I return it back to the ether all twisted up.”
Things indeed change, most often when we least expect them to. But sometimes when we know change is necessary, it can force us to finally go places we’ve long put off. Dennis Ellsworth has reached a place he’s always meant to be with Things Change, and thankfully he’s welcomed the rest of us to join him there.