Lisa Marie Presley was 35 when her first album was released, 2003’s To Whom It May Concern. Her debut’s success was followed two years later with Now What. Again, Presley impressed critics and music buyers alike for her mature and earthy material. However, Presley let it be known she felt she was being pulled in directions she didn’t want to go. She needed time and inspiration to restart her creative juices. Then announcements for her forthcoming Storm & Grace suggested her 2012 return would be a major departure for Presley. As it turns out, these claims are largely true. Her third album is not as hard-charging as her previous releases, and it is far more “organic,” to use Presley’s own description.
But Storm & Grace isn’t just a stripped-down “roots” album, with players simply laying down good grooves behind a singer. Thanks immeasurably to producer T Bone Burnett, the musical settings maintain a unified moody tone throughout the 11 songs. The set is full of subdued echo, haunting guitar lines, and the ambiance of a live session trying to capture both the cerebral and emotional elements in each song. Presley’s lyrics balance both the dark and the hopeful, her painful trials and hard-won triumphs, a few hellos and many goodbyes. In other words, storm and grace.
The principal players include guitarists Burnett, Jackson Smith, Michael Lockwood, Blake Mills, drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist Dennis Crouch, and keyboard player Keefus Green. Presley also sought out various songwriting collaborators who provide their own dimensions to the tracks they contributed to. For example, Ed Harcourt helped write, and sang back-up vocals for the opener, “Over Me.” It’s ominous verses and poppy chorus sketch a story about a woman reflecting about being replaced by someone else, a recurring image throughout the album. Presley, Harcourt, and James Hogarth shaped “Soften the Blows” in which the singer becomes a down-and-dirty chanteuse supported by a throbbing stand-up bass. It’s a song asking whomever is in charge to please do what the title asks for when the road gets rough. The same trio co-wrote a song about suffering through a day with a “Storm Of Nails,” one of the albums most affirming numbers, despite lyrics about needing a hammer when the hard rain comes down.
Sacha Skarbek is another musical partner on a number of selections. These include the laid-back country of “Close to the Edge,” in which Presley sings about not going where you shouldn’t with lines like “You go to him like a mosquito to skin.” Echoing guitar, this time from Burnett, continues the dark support for a composition from Presley, Skarbek, and James Bryan McCollum titled “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.” Here, Presley shows her seasoned alto voice can sustain the long notes as she warns she’s a “disruption to your corruption…I’m a bit transgressive and suppressive as well.” Then Presley, Skarbek, and Luke Potashnick offer two songs, including the smoky “So Long” with the lyricist trapped in a corrupt city, saying goodbye to someone who found her inadequate. The same team provided equally intriguing lines in “Un-Break,” which borders on the neo-psychedelic. The chorus reads:
I’ve got run over by my own parade
I’ve suffocated in the beds I’ve made
I’ve cut my feet on all the glass that I break
Still trying to find a way
To get what’s broken
The psychedelics are even more evident in the cerebral “Sticks And Stones” wherein the singer tells someone they can take her place as they’d probably do it better anyway, an echo of the sentiments in “Over You.” Pulp’s Richard Hawley is co-composer of three numbers, including the slow and beautiful “Weary,” where Presley tells a lover he’s free to move on without regrets. “How Do You Fly This Plane?” is a metaphorical title about a lyricist seeking answers to unanswerable questions. The set concludes with one of the more traditionally set numbers, Presley/Hawley’s Nashville-flavored love song “Storm& Grace.” For the finale, the singer is “blown away” by her lover’s storm and grace, asking only that he put on the brakes and slow down a bit.
Storm & Grace is soulful on several levels—the style of the vocals, Burnett’s musical arrangements, and the depth of the material. While every song deals with surviving pain of one kind or another, the tone is typically one of reconciliation, even if all the victories aren’t easily won. For example, “Forgiving,” co-written with Steve Booker, asks for the secrets of forgiveness as that’s hard to do. But these very secrets are scattered throughout the songs in which Presley waves goodbye to the past, which is full of unworthy lovers and glaring flaws within herself.
So Storm & Grace isn’t a disc to pep up your party, but it is one worth repeated listening. If it’s surprising, that’s probably due to comparisons with her two previous releases and the fact that the attempt here was far more artistic than commercial. Lisa Marie has her own blues to sing and she delivers them with style and grace. This is one Presley very much in the building.