I downloaded the comprehensive box set of all the Elvis studio albums that came out earlier in the year (talk about thankless work) and I had to refer to several different websites to even figure out what the hell each album was. When Elvis finally wrestled his way out of the twenty-eight movies he sleepwalked through in the sixties, his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, decided to flood the market in a different way: endless repackaging. A typical Elvis album in the seventies could compose of a 1954 Sun Studio outtake, a couple previously released soundtrack cuts from anywhere in the sixties, and the hacked up studio sessions that characterized his original work from the ’68 comeback special on.
The last of those studio sessions is compiled into a two-disc set entitled Way Down in the Jungle Room. The Jungle Room was a bizarre faux-Polynesian room in Graceland that was converted into a studio. Towards the end of his life, Elvis became more and more of a homebody. He recorded some sessions at Stax (mainly because it was a ten-minute drive from his home) that continued the country-soul direction he took in the late sixties that represented his main output until his death.
But, as always, the Colonel comes into the picture. I bring him up because it is only through his merciful death that we are able to hear Elvis in this coherent new way. The history of the record industry seems written exclusively by hucksters. But even amongst the endlessly replenishing pile-on of bonus tracks, remasters, deluxe editions, promo copies, endorsements, and the gerrymandering sales tactics that mark agents like Tidal, the butchery of Elvis Presley’s corpus is staggering to the mind. As soon as the Colonel got his hands on these tapes, you can kiss clarity goodbye.
Listening to this reissue, I began that process of questions I always take on whenever I consider Elvis Presley: How could things have gone differently for his unfairly milked and diminished talent? If I could go back in time, the first thing I would do is kill Colonel Tom Parker with a hammer. Colonel Tom Parker wasn’t a Colonel, his name wasn’t Tom Parker, and his ideas about everything were awful. In the myth of Elvis as Icarus, Colonel Tom Parker is the disgusting wax that eventually sent him spiraling into the sea (or more specifically, the bathroom floor). How the Colonel spent decades strong-arming a performer with the finesse and raw talent that Elvis Presley had is one of history’s mysteries.
Disc 1 gives us Elvis the performer while the second disc allows us a glimpse at Elvis the man, Elvis the worker, Elvis the arranger. We hear him chuckling, botching takes, a lot of give and take back and forth between him and his musicians. I would wager that even the alternate takes would be of interest to the layperson who isn’t necessarily an ardent Elvis fan. It’s a bit like encountering the Wizard of Oz: with any spectacle that big, you almost owe it to yourself to peek behind the curtain.
It was through the lens this reissue offers that I began to re-evaluate everything I thought I knew about Elvis already (being a lifelong fan myself). These songs would see release in a haphazard form, the way that Elvis LPs were carelessly thrown together for most of his career, but given a reverential sequencing and presentation, it should be enough to smash to bits the Fat Elvis myth with sledgehammer force.
My opinion has always been that the later years represent the peak of Elvis’s work. At his best in these sessions, Elvis is melodramatic and soars like an opera singer. On a track like “Hurt”, Elvis stretches the three opening lyrics (I’m so hurt) into some kind of endlessly building salvo that bubbles over and over in a tight two minutes (with room for a monolog even). His interpretation of “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain” is the polar opposite of Willie Nelson’s Spartan take on the song, with muggy slide guitar sliding in and out of the mix (newly remastered for this set), but god damn. And the treasures just keep coming.
By allowing the sessions themselves to be arranged into a coherent compilation, we see the enormous clarity and talent that Elvis possessed even as he began his opiate slog into an early death in the bathroom upstairs. When he had good material, as he often does on this compilation, Elvis soars. Three years ago, the aforementioned Stax sessions were compiled into a three-disc set that found Elvis in a chintzy funk setting that didn’t always suit him. Here, he has figured it out. There is a nearly symphonic quality to the best of these songs, dense with cooing backup vocals, country-soul flourishes, and that voice!
Elvis is such a large cultural figure that historians can concentrate their time and energy on certain years of his life and find an inexhaustible stream of people, images, and iconography to concentrate on. My recommendation, if you’re a fan of music history or pop culture, is to get to know Elvis as an artist in his final years. This was a pointlessly chopped up collection that, just now, in 2016, is getting the care it deserved all along. Have you heard Elvis sing “Danny Boy”? I hadn’t. And now I have. And even at the worst, it’s still illuminating.
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