The Elvis juggernaut rolls on, gaining a posthumous momentum that threatens to make his life irrelevant save as fodder for the enrichment of various commercial entities. On its surface, the handsome new four-CD box Platinum: A Life in Music would seem to follow the pattern. Of the 100 tracks here, 77 are hyped as being previously unreleased. Most of these, though, are alternate takes of Elvis classics or rehearsals, begging the question as to whether this set is useful to anyone beyond completists. The answer is yes — there’s plenty here to satisfy all tastes Elvis.
In balancing the unreleased material with a few choice timeless hits (“Return to Sender,” “Don’t Be Cruel” et al.), the collection does an exemplary job of charting the evolution of Elvis’ approach to his material. Platinum begins with the spirited explorations of the Sun years, then limns the succeeding decades, when, with ever-deepening interpretive skills, Elvis employed changes in timbre and subtle phrasing techniques to broaden the scope of even the simplest lyrics. Listening to the four discs chronologically is to hear an artist engaged in a three-decade search for self-definition in his songs’ narratives. It’s an amazing and revelatory journey, encompassing explosive rock & roll, hard-edged country, slow-boiling R&B, sentimental pop, soul-baring spirituals, a haunting stab at folk (a demo of “Blowin’ in the Wind” sung in an eerie bass voice) and a single tenderhearted Christmas entry (an alternate take of the beautiful “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day”).
The headline news of Platinum, however — which can be appreciated by fans, scholars, critics and religious fanatics alike — is the inclusion of a newly discovered 1954 demo of the unsigned Elvis singing a lilting wisp of a pop song called “I’ll Never Stand in Your Way.” His unsophisticated performance is mesmerizing: Clearly indebted to the style of the Ink Spots’ captivating lead singer, Bill Kenny, Elvis’ airy tenor floats delicately above his rudimentary guitar accompaniment, aching and somewhat pinched in its feeling. You sense the singer itching to cut loose, to really swing the lyric, open it up. In those moments, when the pentimento of the blues vocalist reveals itself, the melding of styles that soon would change the course of popular music is on fleeting display. It’s rare when a single song can be said to make a pricey set worth-while, but this particular Rosetta stone of a rare cut does precisely that. Big time.