PLEASE DON'T TAKE THIS the wrong way, but Chris Robley—whether backed by his usual supporting crew, the Fear of Heights, or his previous pop outlet, the Sort Ofs—is a songwriter's songwriter. That label, and all that it implies, usually buoys a lyrical output that is fan-unfriendly, a way to mask the music of a barely listenable—though respected—songwriter. That does not describe Chris Robley. Ever since relocating from Richmond, Virginia, the prolific performer has made a career of anchoring his music firmly to his words—poetic and vulnerable with an airy prose, and often focused not on the man himself, but upon a bevy of intriguing characters that surround him—and earned the respect, if not the envy, of his songwriting contemporaries.
The latest in a series of releases, the next of which Robley admits is already in the works, Movie Theatre Haiku—or its mouthful of a full title, Movie Theatre Haiku (a Masque of Backwards Ballads, a Picturesque Burlesque)—will see the light of day this week. Peppered with various references to cinema—including, but not limited to, the haiku-assembled "My Life in Film Festivals" and the plaintive melancholy of "Permanent Future of Regret"—Movie Theatre Haiku is masterfully built upon screen stories both wide and small that are begging to be told. The late night desertion of a pair of criminal lovers ("Baltimore Fugitives Buried in Brownsville, TX"), the lonesome ache of abandoned love and loss ("A Memory Lost at Sea"), or the intense inner workings of an onstage thespian ("Premiere"); all of these songs accentuate Robley's precise ability to craft relatable protagonists in real life settings.
The cinematic scope of Movie Theatre Haiku is detailed throughout the album, including the lovely aforementioned "My Life in Film Festivals." The album's finest moment, the song is assembled with a gentle base of softly-strummed acoustic guitar, a tinkering piano line, and a whistling chorus, before dissolving into a grand orchestral rock song, capped by the strained rasp of Robley's voice. "'My Life in Film Festivals' is a couple seeing their life mirrored in a film," Robley says. "Pretty much the same thing happens in 'Permanent Fixture.' I think I was just doing that one-step removal kind of analysis."
Ignoring the narcissistic tug that plagues so many songwriters, Robley focuses outward with his gifted pen, seldom dragging his own life into his songs. "I think when you take on another character it gives you the freedom to say really terrible things that you've thought of, but that you don't actually want to stand behind," explains Robley. "Whatever topic you want to talk about—atheism or infidelity—you can just pin it on someone else." Much like John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, Robley's words teeter between fact and fiction, even if it means risking confusion for his family: "I suppose the worst it could get for me is that my parents, or my wife, could misunderstand my songs. Both of them are pretty cool with me going down whatever strange dark alley I want to, without it necessarily reflecting on my real views." He continues, "So the rest of the world, I don't care if they misconstrue it or not. If I write something about a guy that's cheating on his wife or abusing his wife, obviously my wife knows that's not me."