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A mixed bag
on 12 January 2007
It's fascinating to hear the evolution of Elvis's voice across these 5 CDs, spanning the decade 1960-1969, from the chocolatey-brown smoothness of 'It's Now Or Never' to the mature power of 'Suspicious Minds'.
The 130 tracks also illustrate Presley's unique ability to 'inhabit' a song. He can be slyly sensual ('Fever'), defiantly wounded ('It Hurts Me'), rugged and manly ('Inherit The Wind'), cheeky and playful ('Stuck On You')......any number of moods, in fact.
Everyone knows the million-sellers on the first disc, 'It's Now Or Never' and 'Are You Lonesome Tonight' but there are plenty of minor classics here too - 'A Mess Of Blues', 'The Girl Of My Best Friend', 'Like A Baby', 'I Feel So Bad' and so on.
They are all overshadowed, though, by 'Reconsider Baby.' Robert Matthew-Walker, in his excellent book, 'Elvis Presley: A Study In Music', says of this song - "It is a classic blues performance; timeless and awe-inspiring in its power and emotion. This track is a refutation of those who do not recognise what a phenomenal artist Elvis Presley was."
Disc 2 is not nearly as satisfying. The spirit of adventure, of trying out different musical styles, that characterises his first batch of post-Army recordings, is conspicuously absent by now. In their place we find formulaic pop songs and an over-reliance on sentimental ballads. There ARE some gems here - 'His Latest Flame', 'Little Sister' and 'Devil In Disguise' are all stylish cuts - but there's also feeble guff like 'Easy Question' and 'Echoes Of Love.'
Even Elvis's singing, though technically superb throughout, lacks passion and commitment on occasion; he doesn't believe in some of the material. Two exquisite ballads are notable exceptions though - 'Anything That's Part Of You' and 'That's Someone You Never Forget.'
Disc 3 is marginally better, if only due to the inclusion of the brilliant 'Guitar Man' and 'Big Boss Man.' 'It Hurts Me', 'Indescribably Blue' and 'Love Letters' are also love songs of considerable power and beauty.
But the real revelation here is Elvis's version of Bob Dylan's 'Tomorrow Is A Long Time.' Apparently, Elvis was haunted by the lyrics, especially the verse "I can't see my reflection in the water/I can't speak the sounds that show no pain/I can't hear the echo of my footsteps/I can't remember the sound of my own name", which seemed to sum up how he'd lost his way artistically in the mid-60s. Elvis delivers a mesmerising performance, one that sheds a whole new light on him as an artist.
Discs 4 and 5 comprise the legendary Memphis '69 sessions. 'Suspicious Minds' and 'In The Ghetto' both receive towering performances but there are several other songs of similar stature - 'Stranger In My Own Home Town', 'Wearin' That Loved On Look', 'Long Black Limousine', 'Any Day Now', 'Power Of My Love' etc. Elvis also revels in the tougher, more adult dilemmas of 'You'll Think Of Me', 'Kentucky Rain' and 'This Is The Story'. Even lesser tracks like 'After Loving You' and 'True Love Travels On A Gravel Road' are elevated above the ordinary by Elvis's fiery vocal.
You can hear Elvis rediscovering his love of singing on the Memphis recordings. In its gravelly authority, his voice really is a thing of wonder on these songs. He would never sound so impassioned or soulful again.