With the release of Lisa Marie Presley's debut CD, To Whom It May Concern, the beautiful, sphinxlike enigma of American pop mythology has at last laid her claim to destiny, and the results are as audacious as they are surprising. Quite a few years in the making (her first attempt, collaborating with San Fernando Valley Svengali Glen Ballard, went quietly down the toilet), this is not the toy album anticipated from a spoiled kid who had her own private jet. Presley has labored to turn out a fully realized statement, and it reaches far beyond expectations, exhibiting an inward-looking pathology and a deep conviction. It is a descent into a shadowy realm of despair and rage, fraught with an abiding sense of loss and confusion.
Presley's deceptively mainstream brand of atmospheric rock-lite — largely midtempo confessions and accusations that sound a bit too much alike — serves as a platform from which Presley hurls thunderbolts at a variety of deserving targets, herself chief among them. Far removed from the tame, inane commercialism of a Sheryl Crow or the wordy-wordy Lilith Fair coven, Lisa Marie's foulmouthed poetics are startling: The opening “SOB” features a background chant of “fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” and the son of a bitch referred to is herself. While the bitter tone of defiance and disappointment never angles for sympathy, the going gets so grim that one almost wishes she had called upon the still-capable Dolores Fuller to cook up a new “Rock-a-Hula-Baby”-type number just to relieve the anguish. Unlike her only comparable precedent, Nancy Sinatra, Presley wears boots apparently made for kicking just about everyone in the pants. All the lyrics, significantly, are her own.
Since it's impossible to ignore Presley's unimaginably tangled-up pedigree — the cumulative punishment of celestial celebrity; a childhood that swung from fabulous indulgence to the reality of two-bedroom-apartment divorce; Daddy's death; tabloid scandal; Jacko cohabitation; her three divorces; the volcano-roasted Scientology perspective — any attempt at critical analysis is futile. To Whom It May Concern must be taken on its own terms, and Presley doesn't pussyfoot around: One kiss-off (“Better Beware”) closes with “I thought we are spiritual beings/but the game is starfucking, isn't it?”
What feels wrong with To Whom It May Concern is a deliberate lack of Elvis' mystic synthesis — an omission that's all the more depressing because Lisa Marie has no choice. While her father's influence has not been clearly heard for years, that fact is attributable (with a fuck-you-very-much for detractors everywhere) to the unmistakable, intimidating originality of the sound he developed on such masterpieces as the collected Sun Sessions and 1969's From Elvis in Memphis. The impact of his hillbilly-in-eyeshadow, R&B-gospel allure remains beyond estimation, and Lisa Marie's decision to ignore it is both disappointing (because we expect at least an acknowledgment) and inevitable (because she's trying to establish her own identity).
Characterized by flowery moody-pop bridges, elaborate power-ballad turnarounds and plenty of baleful guitar effects, the aural tone of To Whom It May Concern is consistent. Just as consistent is Presley's self-questioning. Her lyrics are harsh, almost sinister, finding her “out on the road between nowhere and hell,” while back at home there are “tears on my ceiling.” The delivery is throaty, at times masculine, detached, sexy, smoky; the narratives lay out Presley's shortcomings alongside those of whatever poor bastard is getting the brunt of her indictment — if she leads with a feint, it's probably a setup for a sneaky, decisive blow. The effect is often deliciously creepy, with the singer whispering psycho invective, always yearning for happiness, scarcely finding it, invariably squandering it. As with a poem found written in chalk on a city pavement, the urgency does play.
Presley flirts with self-indulgence, but, the perfect brat, she struts her own bad-ass path with wounded flair. Despite the guarded shrewdness of a lifelong paparazzi dodger, she reveals volumes even as she tells nothing; her vulgarity, while it sounds natural, also seems calculated to challenge the great ocean of aging E.P. fans. To Whom It May Concern is complex, bittersweet — a crafty, impertinent rejoinder and a painful evolutionary growth spurt all at once. Studio filters, double-tracking and noise sheen make it hard to evaluate Presley as a singer, but she shows guts and honesty enough to rate her beyond the level of a curiosity or an artifact. To Whom It May Concern is a puzzle, a glimpse into a troubled soul who also happens to be the object of incalculable fascination.
LISA MARIE PRESLEY | To Whom It May Concern | (Capitol)