If you have never heard of the album “Elvis Today”, then you are not alone. It was released with little fanfare, with a bland title and an even blander cover. Despite this, the album is one of Presley’s best post-1970 studio efforts, and comes as something of a surprise considering when it was recorded.
1974 had seen Elvis not enter the recording studio at all, with his only professional recording being the fun live album recorded in Memphis during that March. Elvis is in fine form on that album, and considerably more animated and enthusiastic than in the “Aloha” TV special from the year before. But 1974 was not a good year in general. During the late summer and autumn, Elvis gave a series of ever more bizarre, disconcerting and embarrassing concerts. While his singing was reasonably OK (if lacking in any subtlety) for the most part, his onstage monologues showed a man spiralling out of control as he spoke at length about his lack of “paunch”, his ex-wife, karate, liver biopsies and the “false” stories about his drug-taking.
However, after a lay-off of a few months, Elvis entered the recording studio in March 1975 to record what became the “Today” album, and it finds him in fine form as he tackles an all-country collection of songs. One of the most arresting openings of any Elvis album, T.R.O.U.B.L.E. heralds an album in which Elvis sounds healthy, happy and in great voice. This opening song, the first out and out original rocker since Burning Love (since Promised Land was a cover), is a song that sounds as if it has come directly out of the Jerry Lee Lewis songbook. Indeed, Elvis infuses the song with a variety of ad-lib vocal sounds (ca-ca-ca chung) straight out of the unedited Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On recording from 1970. It is refreshing to here Elvis tackle a new rocker again and, in many ways, this is just as convincing as 1973’s Promised Land. Elvis sounds totally focussed on the song and sounds as if he is having a great time to boot. Quite why RCA failed to put their full publicity machine behind the single when it was released is a mystery.
And I Love You So takes us back to more familiar 70s-Elvis material and, again, there is a thrilling combination of power and passion without the over-singing that was to mar the Jungle Room sessions of the following year. If anything detracts from And I Love You So, then it is the slightly over-the-top overdubs, but this is only really noticeable since a beautiful alternate take was released on the “Platinum” boxed set. That take is slightly more of a low-key performance but even more moving without the strings. Presley is totally committed to the song, as evidenced by his careful breath control, delicately stringing long passages together with apparent ease.
Susan When She Tried returns to up-beat material – at least in tempo, if not in theme. If the two previous numbers had an undercurrent of country, then it is fully brought to the fore here. This is pure country – even more so than some of the arrangements on the 1970 Elvis Country album. Ernst Jorgensen writes that it was a struggle to convince Elvis to persevere with the song in the session but the effort is fully justified. Elvis is again in great voice and the song comes together perfectly.
The country theme continues with Woman Without Love. Hardly the most politically correct of songs due to its chauvinist lyrics (“a man without love is only half a man, but a woman is nothing at all”), it still follows on nicely from the previous number and, again, it is a pleasure to listen to Elvis singing so well and with some beautiful phrasing. The waltz-time also reminds me a little of “Honky Tonk Angel” from the Stax sessions of 1973 and suits Elvis’ country-style perfectly.
Shake A Hand finds Elvis returning to a song from the 50s as he so often did in 70s sessions. The use of organ here is a nice touch, giving the song something of a gospel flavour. I find the arrangement a little heavy-handed with the drumming somewhat obtrusive. We get the impression again that Elvis is having a good time, however. His “one more time” and repeats of the chorus into the fade out gives us the impression that we are listening to Elvis just singing with his friends and thoroughly enjoying himself.
Pieces Of My Life is a beautiful performance. It seems to be a kind of country echo of the saloon songs of Sinatra in its introverted nature, sounding as if the singer is just talking to himself and regretting decisions he has made. We know that Elvis listened to the song around thirty times after it was recorded and it is hardly surprising – it is clear from his performance that he is fully immersed in the story. Some may see it as simply an uninspired cover of the Charlie Rich version, but it is over a minute longer and ten times darker than Rich’s version. If Rich is miserable over the mistakes he has made, then Elvis is in full-on despair. What’s more, Presley’s phrasing is considerably better than Rich’s version, which suffers from too many lines broken up into small sections of two or three words making it sound affected. Presley manages to take this away from being just a cry-in-your-beer country song and turns into a mini-autobiography.
Fairytale is perhaps the least well performed song on the album and yet the song itself fits the tone of the record perfectly. The use of a fiddle gives this a pure country feel that is refreshing, it is just a shame that Elvis chose to sing the song in such a high key causing a sense of strain on some lines during the middle of the performance. In fact the alternate take on “Great Country Songs” does seem to be a slightly better performance. This always seemed a slightly weird choice of repertoire to make it into Presley’s live performances, and yet he would go on to sing it regularly in concert until his death.
In contrast, I Can Help would probably have been a fun number to add to the concert repertoire and yet he only ever sang it once – in the studio, in one take. Considering the amount of songs from the 70s that were butchered by the editing of them, it seems slightly ironic that I can Help could have done with a minute off its running time and was issued without an edit! As with Shake A Hand, there is something of a jam session feel running through this number with Elvis making various “whoa’s” off-mic and there is even a feel that he is about to break into laugher at some points. The bluesy finish also gives the impression that it was improvised as well – and makes a welcome change from a fade out ending. All in all, the performance is really good fun with Elvis in total command.
Bringing It Back has a country feel, but the material isn’t up to the standard of the rest of the album, and Elvis fails to lift this track above mediocrity. Still, it leads nicely into the final song of the album, Green Green Grass Of Home. It is interesting that Elvis does a pure country version of the song rather than trying to emulate the country/soul version that Tom Jones recorded and we are told Elvis loved so much. Again, Presley’s commitment is total and he puts in an emotional performance, aided and abetted by the short spoken section. A shame, however, that such a downbeat song concludes such a great LP – I personally think swapping this song with I Can Help would have benefitted the album somewhat. A rousing end number such as I Can Help would have given the album a bit more symmetry with a rocking opening and closing number.
For me, Today is the album that got away. It is full of great songs, all of which have a country flavour to them – the album could have been called Elvis Country 2. What is so pleasurable though is the performances. Even on the ballads Elvis refrains from belting the songs out in the way that he did in the remaining two studio sessions of his life, and through many of his concerts. Here he is singing so well, and in such total control of his voice that he doesn’t need to do this. The control of his vibrato, for example, is so much better on And I Love You So than in virtually any concert performance of the song. So many of Presley’s ballads in the 70s have bombastic arrangements to show off the pure power of his voice, whereas here the emphasis is on conveying the meaning of the lyrics and giving passionate, yet tender, readings of the songs. It’s sad that such a well rounded, enjoyable album containing such brilliant singing is virtually unknown outside of the Elvis world.
Presley would never venture into a recording studio again. He rounded off 1975 with a seemingly never-ending mix of Vegas engagement and tours, with the vast majority finding Elvis in good, if not always inspired, form, and without the bizarre monologues and other on-stage behaviour of the previous year (with a couple of notable exceptions). In 1976, it was impossible to get Elvis into the studio, so a studio was set up at Graceland, where Elvis recorded over a dozen songs. Most were mediocre, maudlin ballads, that found Elvis in poor voice and seemingly bad health. The tours continued right up until his death in August 1977, with his final tour being recorded for a TV special which was shown a few weeks after his death. The programme is heartbreaking to watch, and finds an ill, out of breath Presley in nothing like the vocal or physical shape he must have been in when he recorded the Today album a little over two years earlier.