Another Elvis Presley death anniversary is upon us; thus, it’s time for another “new” Elvis Presley reissue. Some of these collections are surprisingly essential, even for the hardcore Presley fanatic. Sure, the purists may complain of the archives being milked and these reissues simply compiling and rehashing previously released material, and while they may have a point, in recent years, the powers that be have wised up and made sure that these reissues have some greater historical merit. They do so by collecting material that may have been spread out over a dozen previous releases and putting them in a context that makes much more sense. On the surface, this two-disc deluxe version of Presley’s 1975 album Today might seem a tad unnecessary, but therein lies a fascinating tale.
By this point in his career, just getting Elvis into the studio was a daunting task; thus, any and all recordings would be released, simply because the pickings were extremely slim. While most of the songs on Today can rightly be considered lesser material, a handful of the songs, most notably “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” “And I Love Her So,” and his take on Billy Swan’s “I Can Help” show that even at his lowest—and Presley was most definitely at that point in his career, if not his personal health—he still retained a fire and a passion for a song, and his take on “Green, Green Grass of Home” has proven to be a chilling allegory for Presley. The song tells the story about a man dreaming of a joyful homecoming, only to have it revealed that he is a prisoner on death row minutes away from his demise. Presley fell in love with the song in 1966, when he heard Tom Jones’ version of it; one of the more enduring stories of Presley has him hearing the song as he was returning to Memphis from California, and that he was so moved that he called the radio station, to have them play the song again and again for the next few hours. Surely he must have recognized that he too was a prisoner of himself.
This reissue of Today addresses a notorious Presley story, and in so doing, it makes this release oddly compelling. According to legend, Presley was accidentally presented with a pre-overdubbed acetate of the album, and listened to it on the assumption that he had the final mix. Upon hearing this version, without all of Felton Jarvis’ overwrought, heavy-handed production methods (orchestration, back-up choirs, and lush arrangements), Presley reportedly flew into one of his legendary rages. Thus, the bonus tracks on disc one present that version for the first time, as Presley would have heard it.
Listening to this alternate version of Today—and if the story of his reaction to hearing it is true—three things quickly become clear: that Presley had lost touch with the power of his voice, had become complacent with the creative decisions being made for him, and had become too reliant on the Vegas’ formula and bombast. This version of Today is warmer, catchier, and rawer than the finished product. One might rightly assume that heavy arrangements were used to hide vocal weaknesses and imperfections, but that’s sure not the case here. Lesser songs like “Susan When She Tried” and “Fairytale”—dismissible in their finished versions—suddenly sound livelier and much more vivid, and serve as a nice showcase for Presley’s singing. The better material, like “Green, Green Grass of Home” and “And I Love Her So,” are so much more moving and powerful as Presley’s voice is strong and his raw emotion pushes the songs into a place the finished versions only hinted at.
The second disc of this set presents Presley live in concert during the summer of 1975, relying heavily on a Dallas, Texas show that had previously seen posthumous release. As far as Presley performances go, it’s a straightforward set, hardly revelatory in its setlist, but the playing is tight, Elvis is in great voice, and is at his playful, flirty best. One moment does prove rather cringeworthy; at one point, during “Love Me Tender”–which was his “come up and let Elvis kiss you” song for the ladies–a girl comes up. “How old are you, kid?” She answers “Thirteen?” The audience laughs. “Nah.” he says, trailing off as he sings, and then a few seconds later, he says “I’m just kidding, darling.” The audience hoots and hollers, and you hear laughter. “Oh well, she’s gotta start somewhere,” was his response.
Today would be Presley’s final true studio album. After its release, as he descended into his drug hell, getting him to the studio proved impossible, and the final few recording sessions of any value took place at his home at Graceland over the next year; the resulting albums would be patchworks of live recordings, archive takes, and the few usable “Jungle Room sessions.” None of these albums would serve “The King” justice, though his final single, “Moody Blue,” was a truly excellent recording that could have—should have—been the song to get Presley’s career back on track. If anything, Today shows how Presley’s later work could have been so much better, had he not lost touch of who Elvis Presley was.
Categories: Album Reviews