[4 June 2003]
Lisa Marie Presley has led one crazy-ass life, not even including the madness that stems from being the daughter of the world’s first rock star. Drug problems, Scientology, marriages to post-Oscar Nicolas Cage (yuck) and post-operative Michael Jackson (double yuck)—what the hell is this woman’s deal? To be fair, though, she never asked for the attention and hasn’t until recently revealed much of herself to the public. Now 35 and finally following her late father into music-making, Presley has a lot of interesting experiences from which to cull her lyrical material. And cull from it she does on her debut album, To Whom It May Concern. I desperately want to like this album because it has two major things in its favor: Presley’s husky, smoky voice and the complete fearlessness of her lyrics.
Presley takes potshots at lots of targets on the album, from ex-loves to the Memphis Mafia to the prescription of psychotropic drugs to children. She also directs much of the venom at herself in these dark tales, questioning her own behavior as often as she criticizes any else’s. Self-defeating lyrics pop up everywhere: “This is definitely my fault”; “I’m just a son of a bitch no matter what you say”; “Maybe if I got it together again I wouldn’t be belligerent and such a princess”. Two of the most scathing songs are also the album’s best. The opener, “S.O.B.”, is a deliberately paced rocker that fairly seethes with disgust. “You said it wasn’t sharp but I cut my finger / You said it wouldn’t burn and I scarred my face”, Presley snarls. “You said I’m something I’m not and I fell on my face / You said I wouldn’t rot but worms are crawling on me”. The programming on “Better Beware” gives it a pleasant new wave feel, but you believe Presley’s warning that “You better beware” when she sings “I’m no longer your erection, or your congregation, I’m your disease”.
Presley’s real specialty seems to be the “somebody done somebody wrong song”. She veers easily from tender regret on “Sinking In” (“And I wanted to tell you that I was wrong / I didn’t realize I still hold on to you but I still do”) to outright hostility on “Gone”, a song allegedly about Cage (“A spineless ending / Well, who would have guessed dear Daddy / Turned out to be a coward / When I turned my back you cut my throat”).
Not all of Presley’s songs, for which she penned the lyrics and collaborated on the music, are bleak and bitter and the handful of songs that break the dismal mood help give the album depth. “So Lovely” is a sweet ballad to Presley’s two children, who “take care of Mommy too” and “came here to save me”. Two other songs deal with Elvis in completely different ways. On “Nobody Noticed It” Presley speaks directly to her dead father, sympathizing with his pain and offering understanding. “All that you had to endure / I guess nobody noticed it” she sings. “And now everyone, they notice it”. “Lights Out”, the album’s first single, has a cheery, countrified musical backing but gives a twisted take on the mythical Graceland. Far from being a Camelot, it is a place of death: “That’s where my family’s buried and gone / Last time I noticed a space left / Next to them there in Memphis / In the damn back lawn”.
That’s the good news, and as you can see, there’s plenty of it. The complaint I have with To Whom It May Concern is the same one most critics have had with it: the glossy production. Presley’s rich, sexy growl of a voice and biting lyrics are her two greatest assets yet they are buried under layers of instruments live and not-so-live. The problem gets worse as the album goes on because the songs grow less and less interesting. To Whom It May Concern blows its wad right away by putting the strong tracks “S.O.B.”, “Lights Out”, and “Better Beware” in the first half. Every time I’ve listened to the album, I’ve found my mind wandering and my interest waning before I’ve made it through the last few tracks. It’s been noted that Presley is a fan of alternative music from the Sex Pistols and Devo to Beck and the Verve. If she’s half as outspoken in life as she is in her songs (which seems to be the case, judging from her recent press), Presley should have little problem standing up to her advisors and demanding to make an album that better expresses her own musical tastes next time out. If she does, she will really be a force in popular music. At this point, she’s merely a new artist with promise.