Elvis at Stax, the new three-disc collection of recordings made at the famed Memphis studio in 1973, is the box set for people who thought they didn’t need box sets anymore, a return to the sensibility that music doesn’t just float around the internet any old way it pleases — that there’s inherent value in having it organized and annotated by industry wonks and historians who know their subject inside and out. Leading off with a disc-and-a-half of outtakes then laying out every track from sessions recorded in July and December of ’73, the collection brings together material that was initially spread over multiple releases during Elvis’s lifetime, allowing nerds to newbies alike to ponder the emotional and vocal state of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest singer just four years before his death his death in 1977.
Here are the collection’s 10 best tracks to get you started.
1. “I Got a Feelin’ in My Body (Take 1)” [disc 1, track 1]
Elvis struggled with stage fright, and his dwindling output over the final years of his life attests to his growing insecurity in the studio. Here, on the first take of the first night of the December sessions, that nervous energy spills out, but he gains confidence as the track moves along, practically rediscovering his prowess as a singer. Nowhere else in these sessions does he sound quite as raw and unguarded.
2. “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” [disc 3, track 10]
If Elvis weren’t Elvis he could have been a soft-rock king, Gordon Lightfoot with life below the waist. This bad-boy ballad is perfect for a tender soul who reportedly went to pieces if a woman he liked wasn’t ready to move into Graceland on the first date.
3. “Promised Land (Take 4)” [disc 1, track 3]
Why didn’t Elvis sing more rock ‘n’ roll in the ’70s? He’s so relaxed inside Chuck Berry’s double-time rhythm, he’s practically picking his teeth. Berry wrote this one from prison in the early ’60s, mapping his imaginary way back out.
4. “Take Good Care of Her (Takes 1, 2, 3) [disc 2, track 4]
Real country gentlemen hold their heads up when a lady dumps them. Sonny James, Porter Wagoner and Dean Martin took cracks at this one first, but they can’t touch Elvis’s chivalrous yearning.
5. “It’s Diff’rent Now (Unfinished Recording)”
This curio betrays the erratic nature of the July sessions, with Elvis drifting in and out of focus as the song goes along. Ultimately the July sessions fell apart with far less in the can that RCA had hoped. Elvis stormed out on the fourth night because his personal microphones were missing.
6. “Mr. Songman” [disc 3, track 7]
This C-list country ditty is the essence of disposability, but the piano lick and smidgen of vocal naivete turn it into an unexpected charmer.
7. “If You Talk in Your Sleep” [disc 3, track 3]
Mixed with the Stax sessions’ old-fashioned pledges of eternal love are a few decidedly contemporary cheating songs — this one, in which the singer instructs his mistress not to blab about their affair while she’s out cold, takes the caddish cake.
8. “Find out What’s Happening (Takes 7-8)” [disc 1, track 2]
Elvis never quite summons the sass this kiss-off demands, but its combination of twang and funk still pushes it over the top. He gets testy with the background singers in the studio chatter at the beginning.
9. “I’ve Got a Thing About You Baby” [disc 2, track 13]
Tony Joe White, who wrote the concert fave “Polk Salad Annie,” was one of Elvis’s favorite songwriters, and legend has it he perked up when his handlers brought this cheerful paean to new love to the July sessions. The lyrics are pure come-on, but the lack of confidence in Elvis’s delivery makes it surprisingly poignant.
10. “There’s a Honky Tonk Angel (Who Will Take Me Back In)”
What country star doesn’t wring his hands over the choice between a long-suffering, fed-up wife and the trashy good-time gal waiting outside the dressing room? Elvis brings a depth of feeling the dried-up romance part of the song, leaving you rooting for the Priscillas of the world.