[15 August 2013]
My God, how do you begin to talk about Elvis? He’s as familiar to us as Washington or Lincoln, perhaps more so in some circles. And still he remains impenetrable, no matter how much ink has been spilled over him. The more we talk about him, the more we seem to talk around him, ever broadening the distance that separates us from him, further obscuring him with the shroud of legend and history.
Elvis as icon is a fact of life, and better minds than mine have tackled him on that level, contributing profound, though by no means definitive, accounts of their respective visions of Elvis. Meanwhile, by contrast, his music has received little critical attention—indeed, less and less as time goes by.
What’s more, Legacy has only fitfully reissued and repackaged Elvis’s work in such a way as to encourage its reappraisal. Ad hoc compilations are tailored to the tastes of his massive cult and released with alarming frequency, while more carefully curated retrospectives leave circulation almost as soon as they enter the marketplace. As a result, as we grapple with his titanic oeuvre, we have to contend with countless iterations of the King—the rockabilly cat, the rock dynamo, the pop stylist, the country crooner, the gospel belter. Most pervasive, and most divisive, is the Elvis of the 1970s, whom some consider a purveyor of Vegas schmaltz, others an operatic messiah, and others still don’t consider at all.
For that reason, Elvis at Stax constitutes a rather gutsy move on Legacy’s part. There’s simply no ignoring the fact that this is Elvis at his most widely ridiculed. Before the listener even presses play, visions of the bloated, jumpsuit-clad King dance in the head. Now, that image doesn’t really say a thing about the music, but it does say a lot about the man and icon. Fair or not, it’s this characterization of Presley—the careless, strung out, and lazy Vegas staple—that looms over Elvis at Stax.
That’s a shame, because there’s some top notch music here. The alternate versions, outtakes, and master cuts that make up the set’s three discs are a testament not only to Presley’s gifts (he contributes uniformly strong, occasionally arresting, vocals throughout, particularly on the various takes of “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body” and “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” that crop up on this package), but to the talents of the players he surrounded himself with. What’s more, the material collected here is some of the best he recorded in what turned out to be Presley’s most prolific period. You may not be familiar with Presley’s takes on “You Asked Me To”, “Promised Land”, or “There’s a Honky Tonk Angel (Who Will Take Me Back In)”, but you probably recognize the songs themselves as classics.
Granted, this isn’t the best place to begin revisiting Presley’s ‘70s output (that distinction goes to the terrific Walk a Mile in My Shoes: The Essential ‘70s Masters). Still, it packs quite a punch, and if you care a thing about Presley and American music in general, you owe it to yourself to check this set out. Take one of the great vocalists of the past century, give him material like this to lay into, and you’re bound to come out with something not just eminently listenable, but occasionally revelatory.