It’s been awhile since I posted anything here that wasn’t a link to a published CD review or article somewhere else on the web. What can I say? I’ve been busy. But there are moments, however intermittent, when I’m not writing about Lee Perry or Scandinavian folk-weirdness or editing a metal magazine, and I get the chance to listen to music strictly for my own pleasure. And lately, when that chance arises, the odds are good that I’ll be listening to Elvis Presley.
I’ve long believed that From Elvis In Memphis is one of the Top Ten greatest rock albums of all time, indeed one of the greatest works of American popular music, period. It outstrips even some of Elvis’s 1950s hits. I’d damn sure rather listen to “Wearin’ That Loved On Look” or “Long Black Limousine” than “Love Me Tender.” It’s an astonishing album; it combines soul, country, gospel, blues and rock ’n’ roll into a churning, hip-shaking, foot-tapping blend that’s about as uniquely American as it’s possible to be, and that’s before you add Elvis’s sublime, breathtakingly powerful vocal performance into the mix. But it was more than just a one-time achievement, a brief flare before an eight-year descent into darkness, as the mythology has it. No, he never equaled it again; even Back In Memphis, which featured tracks from the same sessions, is in some ways a pale shadow of its big brother. But. But. From Elvis In Memphis was absolutely the sound of Elvis beginning a creative resurgence, after the miasma of the Hollywood years. And if you listen to the 1970s studio albums, the way I’ve been doing the past few weeks, you realize that he managed to bring a surprising amount of energy and commitment into the studio all the way into 1975, if not until the absolute end of his life.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Elvis really started making albums that worked as albums; in the ’50s, RCA pumped out collections of singles, B-sides and filler, as was industry standard. And in the ’60s, his discography consisted primarily of movie soundtracks – albums, yes, but neither the product of a focused artistic strategy or made under conditions that inspired Elvis to do his best. So 1969 was, in effect, the beginning of his career as an album artist – it took him five to seven years to make a move other pop/rock musicians had begun making at the beginning of the 1960s.
But albums like Elvis Now, Today, and particularly the trilogy of Raised On Rock, Good Times and Promised Land, all recorded at a few marathon sessions in 1973 (at the Stax studio, among other places) but released one a year through 1975, are powerful slabs of Elvisiana. For a guy who didn’t write lyrics and whose guitar and piano playing was far from virtuosic, he really put his stamp on a song. There are some genuinely weird moments from this period - Elvis Country (I’m 10,000 Years Old), with its snippets of the title spiritual serving as bridges between versions of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “The Fool,” “I Really Don’t Want To Know,” etc., is probably the weirdest album, but 1973’s Elvis has some head-spinning tracks, too, particularly the album-closing blast through Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”
It's that Stax-related trilogy, though, that absolutely kills me. The song "Promised Land" is one of Elvis's hardest-rocking tracks, ever; you may remember it from the movie Men In Black (it's the song playing when Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith are rocketing upside down through the Lincoln Tunnel). Much of the rest of the album is kinda countrypolitan and ballad-heavy, but that doesn't mean Elvis isn't totally committed to each and every performance. His way of inhabiting each lyric is Sinatra-esque in its intuitive brilliance and power, and when he does decide to punch the energy level up a little, with the soul song "If You Talk In Your Sleep," you'll about jump through the wall. Never mind his take on Merle Haggard's "You Asked Me To," which closes the album. The weakest album of the trilogy is definitely Good Times, though it's got its share of high points - I'll put "I Got A Feelin' In My Body," "I've Got A Thing About You Baby," and "Talk About The Good Times" on any Elvis playlist or mix disc. Raised On Rock, as befits its title (and its awesome cover art, featuring Elvis in caped jumpsuit and full live crouch/roar), is the most aggressive of the three albums, with the highest ratio of rockers to ballads. The title track, "Find Out What's Happening," "If You Don't Come Back," "Just A Little Bit" and "Three Corn Patches" all kick ass, and that's not meant to give the ballads short shrift - I mean, we all know Elvis could sing the living shit out of the slow ones, right? I don't really have to explain that to you?
I'm not joking or crazy when I say that if I had to choose, right now and irrevocably, I would happily spend the rest of my life listening to 1969-77 Elvis even if it meant I could never hear 1953-1957 Elvis again.