At the time of its release, Elvis Presley’s 1970 album That’s the Way It Is was generally perceived as simply the latest in a series of comebacks by the King. The album is an odd hybrid of live recordings and studio work linked to a big Vegas show; it’s also magnificent. Drawing inspiration from the Kris Kristofferson singer-songwriter movement that was encroaching on Nashville in the early Seventies, That’s the Way It Is may be Presley’s most grown-up collection of songs: Love affairs are negotiated around unpaid bills and babies crying at 6 a.m.
Presley, thirty-five at the time, shoulders these burdens with maturity and an awareness of the world as a complicated place: In “Twenty Days and Twenty Nights,” he talks of how much he misses the wife he has abandoned but recognizes without a trace of self-pity how difficult it would be to return to her. The delicacy of “Mary in the Morning” (still cited by his daughter Lisa Marie as one of her favorites) and “Just Pretend” is a long way from the bombast he would bring to subsequent hits such as “The Wonder of You.” Departing from his usual strategy, Col. Thomas Parker allowed his charge to record covers, mostly recent hits for other people, such as “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and B.J. Thomas’ “I Just Can’t Help Believin’. ” They all work, since no matter who did the original, Presley is a better singer.
That’s the Way It Is was rereleased in 2000 as a three-disc set, with extra tracks from the original sessions, plus the live Vegas show and its rehearsal included in their entirety. The rehearsal is playful, including a medley of the Beatles’ “Get Back” combined with his own “Little Sister,” but Presley’s live performance had descended into self-parody by this point — it sounds as if he kisses every woman in the front row during “Hound Dog” — which only points out how beautifully shaded his studio work had become. This was the blueprint for an Elvis we could have grown old with.