The Residents have put a decision before me. Their new album, The King & Eye, is not available on record (at least not in the United States, but I’m not spending money to import it from Europe). That leaves me with either getting the cassette version (which comes in so small a package it may as well not have cover art, and will probably get eaten before too long) or I can get it on compact disc (which fares better on the artwork front, but I don’t trust the sound just yet). I shouldn’t be surprised that The Residents are an early adopter of this format (or rather an early renouncer of the record format); they are always interested in new technology, so it stands to reason they would lose interest in the old. Not to be left behind, I have opted for the compact disc, adding it to my collection of six albums in that format. I still like my records.
Format preferences aside, this is an album of Elvis Presley songs done Residents style. Overall, the music sounds cold and sterile. I can’t attribute that entirely to the sound of compact discs. This isn’t the same flatness I hear on my compact disc of A Hard Day’s Night; there is a deliberate choice made here. I think it’s in the percussion. The drum beats often have no reverberation on them, giving a thin, unnatural sound. The Residents have used drum machines extensively before, but always with additional studio trickery applied to them. This time they’ve been laid bare.
It could be a matter of expense. I see that this album was recorded at Different Fur Studios and not in the band’s ordinarily uncredited personal studio. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to suppose they ran out of money before they could put much work into the music, leaving them an album with a heavy reliance on the basic guide tracks.
But the genesis of a situation should not affect how we perceive the resultant situation itself. Like all artists, The Residents will incorporate unforeseen circumstances into their work. So we are left to contemplate why Elvis songs are presented in this way. I think The Residents are acknowledging an uneasy acceptance of Elvis Presley in music history. The treatment of these songs does not sound like the kind of respectful homage they make in their American Composers Series, but at the same time it’s not quite the disdain they expressed with The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll. Somewhere between love and hate lies Elvis. They don’t admire him, but he can’t be completely disregarded, so what’s a band to do?
You recontextualize his story.
There are several unlisted tracks in which Elvis Presley’s life is reimagined as a fairy tale, “The Baby Who Wanted to Become a King,” told by the Storyteller from God In Three Persons. And this time he has an audience of two small children. While The Residents certainly had a scripted story to tell, the children are honest and real, and the Storyteller improvises around their responses. It’s a warm, intimate side we don’t often see from them.
The audience also includes us: those who listen to the album. There is one point at which he refers to “everybody that’s out there listening,” so this album explicitly involves the audience and is aware of its place in our reality. The Residents say that everybody (and they include themselves in this) needed Elvis. They reject love, caring, happiness and truth as defining qualities for Elvis, and land on need. We need stories, and we need real life to adhere to the format of familiar stories. We need Elvis, or someone like him.
The Residents want us to remember Elvis not as a great performer or cultural icon, but as an uncertain, frightened child who became a victim because he never had the chance to learn the difference between needing and loving. It’s a cautionary tale for all children, young and old.