Elvis Presley is the greatest singer in the history of rock & roll. As each of his frustratingly mediocre albums appears, we are forcibly reminded of that fact. There is almost nothing on any of them to keep us listening. But I have never heard an Elvis record which didn’t reveal something about the man and his capacities and therefore, somehow, about everyone’s. Instinctively and accidentally, Presley’s product (with no other artist does that term have such resonance) teaches us what charisma means.
Elvis throws away the best line on Today — “Have a laugh on me, I can help” — with what seems to be transparent smugness. The words invite the dismissal of everything on the record but, as always, there is a catch.
Today catalogs perfectly the undeniable stylistic and creative decline of every Sun artist, makes us realize how much more than a match Elvis was for them and how canny he has been in avoiding the burnout. (If he has done it by fizzling out, that does not necessarily lessen the achievement. Name someone else who has been able to remain continuously fascinating for 20 years.)
Superficially, nearly every song on this album would have been better off in the hands of one of the other Sun singers, or one of Presley’s latter-day imitators. “T-R-O-U-B-L-E,” the latest chart number, is made for Jerry Lee Lewis. It begs Elvis to romp, stomp and rip it to shreds. He declines the honor, but not without giving an indication, here and there, that he could if he wanted to. In his refusal, we can see simultaneously the genius of Presley and Colonel Parker in avoiding the issue, and the brilliance of Lewis, the only Sun artist who has retained any of his power with something like consistency.
“I Can Help” is perhaps more suited to Presley’s peculiar talents than any other song in the last decade. It is a gauntlet thrown, and he picks it up without reluctance. But with such a twist! Here is a song meant to evoke everything the early Memphis sound meant, and what does he do with it? He takes it to Vegas. Only a truly inspired — or truly arrogant — man would have had the thought, much less the courage, to carry it through.
“Pieces of My Life” is actually the song Charlie Rich now uses to close his debilitated live performances. Presley’s version is no less banal, but it is somehow richer. Anyone who has ever thought Rich might be the man to match Elvis’s voice — I confess the heresy — will find his hopes (or fears) dashed here. “Susan When She Tried” is pure Johnny Cash. And with “Green, Green Grass of Home,” Elvis, with his usual lack of commitment, manages to mock not only Tom Jones but the very idea of a return home (even to Memphis, source of his fertility).
Bruce Springsteen sums it up perfectly, just before rocking into a version of “Wear My Ring around Your Neck” that might make the master smile. “There have been contenders,” he says, “there have been pretenders. But there is only one king.” Long may he reign.