It should probably go without saying, but those of us more interested in Elvis Presley the musical artist than Elvis Presley the pop culture icon tend to prefer the early, Sun Studios material to his late-career output—especially the Vegas stuff. The same effectively goes for fans of Marilyn Monroe who regard her as an underappreciated, first-rate actress, and not just a ubiquitous sign of her times. Consistently, we cite her dramatic performances in films like The Misfits and Bus Stop as evidence that she had more to offer than mere symbolic iconicity. And, yeah, The Sun Sessions is Presley’s strongest collection of songs, and Monroe was never better than as vulnerable divorcee Roslyn Taber in John Huston’s anti-Western.
That said, it’s high time music-first critics give Elvis’s Vegas work another listen, and recognize it for what it actually represents. It’s one of the first major examples of a youth hero aging in the limelight, not always gracefully yet often movingly. Significantly, Elvis was getting older alongside his legion of not-so-young-anymore fans, shifting from hip-shaking rockabilly to soulful balladry just as they navigated their way from the dancehalls to the craps tables. Listen to Jay-Z’s last album, Kingdom Come, and you’ll hear something quite similar: “Young enough to know the right car to buy/ Yet grown enough not to put rims on it.” Bono’s another good example, having evolved from would-be revolutionary to de facto diplomat, and still selling records to, largely, the same people who bought U2 records 20 years ago.
Elvis: Viva Las Vegas (the soundtrack to an ABC special, not to be confused with the 1964 Elvis movie’s accompanying album) is an essential document of some of the King’s strongest Vegas recordings, all live save for a studio version of the title track. It’s Elvis the born entertainer at his most towering, reveling in his unlikely comeback and enjoying every glitzy minute of it. If he’s not technically as good here as he was on the sprightlier, more up-tempo early records, he’s just as in his element. He skips seamlessly between rock ‘n’ roll (“See See Rider”), country ‘n’ western (“Polk Salad Annie”), and grandiose gospel (“The Impossible Dream [The Quest]”), marking each with more soul than schmaltz—though there’s naturally plenty of the latter to go around, too.
Of course, what Elvis’s record-setting tenure in Sin City also represents is the birth of the modern, overblown, produced-within-an-inch-of-its-life concert spectacle. Vegas obviously remains the capital for this sort of thing, but the trend is clearly visible outside the state of Nevada, from Branson, Missouri to the Rolling Stones’ high-dollar nostalgia-fests to throne heir Justin Timberlake’s elaborately choreographed performances. Hell, you could probably even find Elvis’s rhinestone fingerprints on Cirque du Soleil; that’s how far his cultural reach continues to extend. Not coincidentally, Viva Las Vegas‘s biggest drawback is Elvis’s Vegas-era tendency toward wretched excess. The arrangements, at times, are too ornately composed, too maudlin, with superfluous back-up vocalists contributing to the sense of overkill. After a while, you begin to miss the modest, stripped-down charm of ‘50s gems like “I Don’t Care If the Sun Don’t Shine” and “I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone”.
On the other hand, Elvis’s voice has never sounded more majestic and commanding than it does here, redefining hits like Simon and Garfunkel‘s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”. His version of “Let It Be Me”, my favorite cut on this collection, is a thing of rare, aching beauty. “God bless the day I found you/ I want to stay around you”, he croons with a tender sincerity that’s striking for the unmistakable maturity of his tone, and poignant for the retrospective knowledge that Elvis wouldn’t be staying around us for too much longer, at that point. It’s like watching that wrenching climactic scene in The Misfits, where Marilyn’s Roslyn pleads frantically with Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift’s cowboys to set the mustang they’ve captured free. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what ghosts sound and look like—painful reminders of what might have been.