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With a taste for the spotlight partially realized, Presley soon hooked up with Glen Ballard (best known for producing Alanis Morisette's 1997 Grammy-winning Jagged Little Pill) and delivered To Whom It May Concern. Four years in the making, Presley's musical debut serves as an open letter to the world.
"It's more or less sarcasm," she says, referring to the album's title. "I was up against a lot, you know. People already judged me or whatever. So I just wanted to kind of break through to those people who weren't necessarily listening with an open heart and head."
A seething autobiographical work of free-associative, angst-ridden poetry, the twelve-song cycle blends Presley's deep, sexy voice with overloaded production gloss and fairly mainstream sensibilities. Avoiding Southern gentility, the singer mates persistently dark melodies with layers of guitars, electronic drum loops, Hammond organs and the occasional F-bomb. Compositionally generic, the album is neither a masterpiece nor an embarrassment. It's assured, world-weary and gutsier than anything put out by Sheryl Crow, Cher and Jewel combined -- for what it's worth.
"I don't particularly want to be compared. I don't really think it's comparable to anything," Presley says, without a trace of modesty. "But I guess that's the nature of the beast. I know that people have to find a need to do that, but I don't think it's adult-contemporary, either. The only thing I would compare it to -- because I want it general enough to the genre -- would be rock."
Citing Pink Floyd as her biggest musical influence, Presley offers a radio-friendly slew of mid-tempo ballads presumably directed toward herself ("S.O.B."), her father ("Nobody Noticed It") and at least two out of three former husbands. Pinpointing who's who, though, isn't easy. While a tune like "Indifferent" includes the line "All the pretty roses wilted up and paled themselves away today," there's no overt mention of little boys, plastic surgery or the stench of chimp. So who can say?
But with so many veiled references, does Presley ever worry that her lyrical intent might get lost on the casual listener?
"No. Never. Not for one second. Not on my end," Presley says. "I don't even go into that department. I think people should just be open to different interpretations. It's all kind of in there, you know? It's all me, and it's raw. There's no other mission here."
Fortunately, not all of her compositions need a decoder ring. On the Isaak-flavored cut "So Lovely," she quietly thanks both of her kids for saving her life, adding simple but heartfelt advice: "Don't do as I do." Presley says her children -- Danielle, thirteen, and Ben, ten, sired by first husband, Danny Keough -- are both musically inclined. In fact, she includes them as backing vocalists on the title track.
The self-examination reaches a boiling point during the album's single, "Lights Out," a steady rocker as propulsive as the mighty Cuyahoga. A death-obsessed Presley, who's kept her watch set to Memphis time since her father died, belts out a haunting chorus while coming to grips with her own heritage and mortality: "Someone turned the lights out there in Memphis/That's where my family's buried and gone/Last time I was there I noticed a space left/Next to them there in Memphis/In the damn back lawn." By song's end, when Presley's leather-lunged wailing turns to near-primal grunting, the question isn't whether or not all roads lead to Memphis (that's always been a given), but whether the fabled Graceland boneyard also includes a plot for Priscilla. Either way, Elvis's widow supports the chosen path of her headstrong charge, even if it stressed her out in the beginning.
"I think she [worried] initially," Presley says of her mother's reaction to her stab at the spotlight. "Now she's proud of it, that I actually pulled it off."
With Mama's blessing, To Whomreached number five on the Billboard charts upon release, making it one of the year's highest debuts. (For bean counters and trivia buffs: Elvis Presley's 1956 self-titled debut entered the charts at number eleven but went on to spend ten weeks at number one, while Lisa Marie's dropped out of the Top 20 within a month.)
"I really tried to put something credible out there of substance," Presley says.
Given the high expectations that come with her overwhelming genetic legacy, it's a decent start. But whether or not Presley can quiet accusations of being a rock-and-roll hobbyist, a novelty act or a Lisa-Come-Lately remains to be seen. Developing as a critically viable artist in the shadow of an icon can't be easy -- just ask Hank Williams Jr., Julian Lennon or that guy in the Wallflowers.
"I admire how Jakob [Dylan] has done," Presley says. "He just does his thing, you know? He's got his family, and he's out there touring. I really admire that."
For her part, Presley remains committed to a similar fate. She admits that at this stage in her budding career she feels most comfortable playing in smaller venues, where it's more personal and she can cling to the audience. Away from the road, however, she prefers a quiet domestic life, doting on her children, dogs and peacocks and relaxing in a house built by Robert Blake during his Baretta days.
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