Elvis Presley’s “From Elvis In Memphis” reviewed
I don’t consider Elvis Presley’s 35th album, From Elvis In Memphis ,his greatest achievement, I put the two first RCA albums, Elvis Is Back and maybe even Elvis At Stax before it. For one thing, I don’t like the background singers, all fourteen of them, all in the way, including Ronnie Milsap. For another, I am not crazy about the song selection. Though if the original release had included two outtakes, “Kentucky Rain” and “Suspicious Minds”, it might prove a lot more difficult to make my claim stand up. Just those two additional songs would have top heavied the great material to such an extent, the argument would’ve been untenable.
But Presley, back after nearly a decade of matinee movies and spotty albums, released From Elvis In Memphis six months after the ’68 NBC Special. It was recorded at American Sound Studio in Memphis in January and February 1969, produced by Chips Moman and backed by the house band “The Memphis Boys”. Chips was a former Stax guy, and this soul country hybrid, an early form of Americana, lead by Presley’s vision, was undiluted Memphis soul sounds.
Considered Elvis at his most Elvis, his most extreme version of himself and as a mature (Presley was 34 years of age), full voiced soul man. “Only The Strong Survive’ channels his mother, “Long Black Limousine” foreshadows his death, “True Love Travels On A Gravel Road” is a promise that can’t be kept, and while the “Gentle On My Mind” adds nothing to the conversation, the singing is exquisite. It keeps the album sidling between self-portrait and self-commendation. The material isn’t great, and the great material isn’t greatly executed, and having made both statements, what makes em stick is whether it is “A” or “B”, it’s still Burt Bacharach, Hank Snow, Mac Davis), Eddy Arnold, Gamble and Huff (really, with Jerry Butler along as well) . We are not talking Ben Weismann or Sid Tepper here, this is a creamy rush of top songwriters working for a giant.
A giant who had never sung better than he does here, think Ray Charles ‘s Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music. The album shares Eddy Arnold songwriting credits, and they share a visionary deliverance, a soulfulness that seems to go beyond conviction, or simple skill, or genius, to a deeper truth about the nature of who they are. Presley’s album is obsessively about him, he interprets other people’s material in order to turn the mirror on himself, to see himself clearly. What he sees is a dream of a path of love, that gets derailed, the missing “Suspicious Minds” is the zenith of these love to love but keep on getting side stepped deals. People who love Memphis, love it because everything he had learnt singing to wind up dolls and with overly precocious ten year olds, added to his skill as a gifted interpreter toiling through his very being. Until Memphis, Presley was a young man. The teen idol in all those movies was never a grown up, he was always a young man about to transition. Musically, Memphis is that transition come to fruition.
More, the Presley of 1969 was a serious man. There are two ways to deal with fame, one is to buy into it and become a rampaging ego maniac like, say, Don Henley or Stephen Stills, or Diana Ross, and the other is to embrace your real size and that is what Presley did: his metaphysical readings were real and really spiritual. After The Bible, his favorite book was (note the title) “The Impersonal Life”, According to Amazon, “’The Impersonal Life’ is one of the key books written on the topic of self-discovery and leading a spiritual life. Author Joseph Benner penned this book as Anonymous in the early 20th century, and it has been a popular title among millions of readers since. The Impersonal Life is highly recommended for those who are interested in learning how to lead a spiritual life and are in the process of self-discovery.” This seems to be a truth tucked into Memphis, that it is an exploration of who Presley is. The songs are personal without being necessarily subjective, moving restless from advice that in hindsight leaves a bad taste in your mouth, through ruptured, fractured and sutured relationships, to a search outside the self and into a society. “In The Ghetto” is a good song but Presley makes it a testament, a let freedom ring denunciation of endemic racism. Presley takes all the sentimentality and insincerity, and dashes it in his tortured compassion. It speaks, it sobs, it embraces sorrow for his countries racial malfeasance.But like I said, “In The Ghetto” is only a good song, and more or less, so is much of the rest of the album. Good, very good, but there is nothing song wise that equals the second side of Elvis Is Back, vocally Memphis may well be better but song for song, it is missing songs big enough for Elvis. Yes, his singing is great, listen to the coda to “After Loving You”, as he regurgitates his words before the end, changing an ordinary into an extraordinary moment, the slightest of touches but transforming. Every song with backup singers, even the astounding “True Love Travels On A Gravel Road” is defaced by the dumbass singers. Like shut up, man. Cmon El, they aren’t adding anything to your masterclass. I am not nitpicking, this is a real complaint.
I love From Elvis In Memphis very much, though except for “Ghetto” he never carried the songs forward, they weren’t staples of his live show. They were not with him in his last eight years because they weren’t quite good enough. Even so, this is a truly mature artist peaking, a real man, a great man.