You can be looking at Lisa Marie Presley ó a slip of a girl, pretty, rich, well dressed ó and at first glance she seems no different from any of the hundreds of such women with famous last names bundling about Hollywood, ducking the tabloids, smiling on the red carpet. And then, if something strikes her fancy, sheíll break into an aw-shucks half-smile, and with that brief flicker of emotion her features will fall into line and the image of her father on her face ó the sleepy eyes, the curled lip, the dominant cheekbones ó will become so strong, it looks superimposed. And then, just as quickly as it arrived, itís gone.
By birth, Lisa Marie Presley ó whoíll open for Chris Isaak at FleetBoston Pavilion this Friday ó is the heiress to the crown of rock and roll; by marriage, she was once the queen of pop. But her debut solo album, To Whom It May Concern (Capitol), lays claim to neither title: itís an album about a life spent trying to live down both distinctions. On the most chilling song, "Lights Out," which is also, against her wishes, the albumís first single, Lisa Marie contemplates the garden in her familyís famous backyard ó the one that has Elvisís grave, a site from which on August 16 of each year long lines of candle-bearing pilgrims snake down Elvis Presley Boulevard ó and remembers that there is a place reserved for her, too, "next to them there in Memphis/In the damn back lawn." Itís a morbid metaphor for the steep price of her inheritance, for a birthright that can never be fully divorced from an awful grief, from dread and foreboding.
And yet there are some resemblances from which it does no good to hide, from which one canít run forever. Perhaps Lisa Marie could have gotten a law degree and run for a Senate seat ó now that sheís reached 35, is there a scenario in which she wouldnít have been elected in Tennessee? But such thoughts donít appear to have crossed her mind. There seems to be, in every telling of it, a dark gravity to Lisa Marieís life, a powerful, invisible presence that determines her orbit. She has lived the kind of life that invites armchair psychoanalysis: a life in which her father, and his absence, appear to have played a more profound role than any fiction writer would ever allow.
For her part, Lisa Marie is not so much in denial of this influence as she is unwilling, as an independent-minded individual, to cede responsibility over her life to a ghost. And this is one of those reassuring qualities that makes her seem, in the midst of her celebrity divorces, so disarmingly normal: just like the rest of us, she cannot see the billboard of her life for the fine print. She remains a mystery to herself, if not to others. And letís face it: if your father is Elvis Presley, and you go on to marry Michael Jackson and then Nicolas Cage, and you admit to Rolling Stone that you harbor secret lusts for Darth Vader, you donít need therapy. What you need is a rock-and-roll band.
To Whom It May Concern is the product of four yearsí work. Eric Rosse, best known for his work with Tori Amos, gets the lead-producerís credit. He inherited the job from Alanis Morissette producer Glenn Ballard, who left the label before the disc was completed. Ballardís right-hand man, Cliff Magness (Avril Lavigne), is credited on several tracks, and Capitol president Andrew Slater oversaw "Lights Out" himself. Lisa Marieís voice has a naturally smoky huskiness ó like her fatherís for brief moments, though more often it sounds a bit like Cherís. The songs are thoroughly modern, adult-contemporary pop. "Sinking In" comes closest to Alanis territory ó albeit after-the-gold-rush Alanis ó with its mid-tempo angst and defiant refrain: "You just want to kick me again, donít you?"
On the rousing opener, "S.O.B.," she sounds uncannily like mid-í90s grunge-lite shoulda-beens Hammerbox. Thereís a line in "Better Beware" that wouldnít be out of place on an album by her pals Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie: "Iím no longer your erection, or your congregation/Iím your disease." And the songís smattering of electronic percussion could remind you of a slightly more organic Garbage while its twinkling reverb and burbling synths are recalling some of U2ís more recent productions. Thereís even a brief cameo by a watery guitar sound that seems to have been plucked off Smashing Pumpkinsí Siamese Dream; unfortunately, itís not played by Billy Corgan, who wrote a song with Presley that didnít make the domestic version of the album. (That collaboration was deported overseas to serve as a Japanese-pressing bonus track.) After listening to To Whom It May Concern, you could say that Lisa Marie Presley has been influenced by Sam Phillips ó but only if youíre talking about the one whoís married to T-Bone Burnett, not the one who gave her father his big break.
THE BIG QUESTION IS, WHY NOW? Her sole recording output prior to To Whom It May Concern was a pre-recorded duet with her father on his "Donít Cry Daddy" that screened as a video presentation for fans on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his death. It was recorded by David Foster, who these days admits that heíd hoped to have Presley do an entire album along the lines of his pairing of Natalie Cole with her late father, Nat "King" Cole. For her own part, Lisa Marie never considered releasing the song commercially. All the same, one presumes she couldíve gone to Nashville any time she pleased and Music Row wouldíve been happy to have her.
"I couldíve," she says over the phone from her publicistís office in LA. "But I needed to use this record as an outlet. Iíve been through a lot. And I was aimless at that point. Iíd had a second failed marriage [to Jackson], I felt a little purposeless, and it came at the right time where I felt like I could really dive into this and make my own thumbprint while I was at it somehow. When I was a teenager, different label presidents and producers would say, ĎWhen youíre ready . . . ,í or, ĎIf you ever want to . . . í Things like that. I was never ready, though, and I never really wanted to, until that time hit where I felt like I could really do it. I didnít want to do it and be a flash in the pan, or do it for some stupid reason like becoming a pop star, or do it for any other reason than to make a good record. And I wanted to affect people, and move people. And thatís asking a lot, because of who I am ó because itís me. So people are gonna have to get by who I am first. Thatís why I called it what itís called."
Of course, her famous flames are at least part of the discís allure. Failed relationships figure prominently in about half the songs, and you could fashion a pretty good half-hour E! special out of divining which ex-husband fits which set of lyrics. Speaking to Rolling Stone, she didnít outright deny that "Gone" was a Cage kiss-off ("When I turned my back, you cut my throat," she sings; and later, "I know I begged you to stay around, but now Iím gone"). "Was it that I had a crush on your friend?" she sings on "Sinking In." "Was it that I left for another man? . . . Was it that everyone would just kiss my ass/I couldnít see through it and you could?" On "Important," her lyrics take on the bluntness of a diary entry. "Maybe the reason Iím so needy is because I never had real devotion," she sings, "maybe I criticized your loyalty because it wasnít given to me." It would seem sheís saved some of the harshest criticism for herself.
"I didnít even realize that until the record came out, someone else mentioned it to me," she says. "Thatís just how I am. I donít believe in blaming people, because you give them too much power by doing that. You have to look at your responsibility and what you did and how you caused it as well, and that keeps you saner."
Her self-criticism extends to the discís one forgivably treacly moment ó forgivable because if she didnít have a gene for sentimental ballads, youíd question the validity of her parentage. "So Lovely" is a love letter and lullaby to her own children, 14-year-old Danielle and 10-year-old Ben. "Sometimes donít listen to your mama, no/And donít do as I do," she sings. "Nobody Noticed It," the song on To Whom that most directly addresses her father ("I wish that I had spent just a little more time with you"), was inspired by the Elvis mafia whoíve raked his reputation over the coals for the past 30 years. "I felt like they were trying to take his dignity away, and I felt like it was unjust, and I wanted to strike back and give him something, to take it back."
But the song is also about realizing her own resemblance to her father, acknowledging something that sheís perhaps suppressed. Itís a view, it would seem, thatís been shaped by her recognizing herself in her own children. "Oh, totally," she says. "Theyíre little miniature mes: humor-wise, personality-wise. Theyíre so no-bullshit, those kids." (Their father, Daniel Keough, Lisa Marieís first husband, gets co-songwriting credit on a handful of the albumís songs.)
Like the young Lisa Marie, her children are avid music fanatics. "I think they think itís cool" that sheís taken up the family business, she says. "Theyíre a little surprised that itís finally happened. Theyíve been watching me record for four years, done and redone and redone again. My son is a huge rap fan. My daughter is more rap/alternative/pop. I listened to lots of different things at their age. I was a real big Pat Benatar fan, and the Wilson sisters ó I loved Heart. Pink Floyd. I went through a punk phase: I liked the Sex Pistols. Never got into the Ramones. Now Johnny Ramone is one of my best friends, but I never really heard his stuff until I got to be friends with him."
By her own admission, one of the reasons Lisa Marie spent so long not making a rock album is that she didnít want to do what sheís doing right now: dissecting her life for public consumption. "Itís not fun for me to sit around and answer questions about my personal life all the time. My biggest challenge right now is to try to get people to see that Iíve moved people with the music and it doesnít have anything to do with me running around out there and talking. People can just take shots at me and ask me sensationalistic questions ó whatever. The thing that has been most validating is when Iíve been out doing shows and I meet people ó kids or teenagers or whoever ó walking up to me quoting my lyrics and explaining how some song of mine moved them or affected their lives. Then Iím happy."
Lisa Marie Presley opens for Chris Isaak at FleetBoston Pavilion this Friday, July 11; call (617) 931-2000.