'The Complete Elvis Presley Masters' worth $750?

It’s the question Elvis fans may ask as they contemplate whether to plunk down a substantial fee for this box set.
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Elvis Presley
The Complete
Elvis Presley Masters
RCA/Legacy (88697 11826 2)
Grade: ★★★★★

By Gillian G. Gaa

Is it worth it?

That’s the first question Elvis fans surely will ask as they contemplate whether to plunk down a substantial fee for this box set, whose initial issue is a limited-edition, individually-numbered run of 1,000 with a hefty price tag of $750. (“The Complete Elvis Presley Masters” is currently only available at www.CompleteElvis.com. As of presstime, a message on the site declares that the limited 1,000-unit first edition already has sold out. The message site says a second, unnumbered edition will be released ”in the near future,” and interested parties are encouraged to sign up to pre-order.)

RCA’s gone to a lot of trouble to make sure you feel you get your money’s worth. For starters, you get every master recording Presley released during his lifetime, which fill 27 of the 30 CDs in this set. But instead of getting the music as originally released, it’s presented as it was originally recorded; for example, on the CD that features songs from “Blue Hawaii,” the first number is “Hawaiian Sunset,” not, as on the album, the title track “Blue Hawaii.” This gives the listener a unique way of experiencing the catalogue; you can listen to Presley’s career unfolding exactly the same way it did for him.

In the interest of rounding out the story, a few rarities are inserted into the main narrative; the song “The Lady Loves Me” from the film “Viva Las Vegas” wasn’t available on a record until 1983’s “Elvis: A Legendary Performer Vol. 4,” but it appears here with the other “Viva Las Vegas” tracks. There are more rarities on the set’s final CDs, though nothing previously unreleased. The tracks are drawn from previous box sets, collections like the “Essential Elvis” and “Elvis: A Legendary Performer” series and releases on the Follow That Dream collector’s label.

If you really want to get a new perspective on Elvis, listen to the set from start to finish. Discs 1 through 4 capture the King in his prime, as the innovative, full-blooded rock ’n’ roll icon who dazzled the world. When the post-Army years begin on Disc 5, you can tell immediately that something has changed; the voice never falters, but the scope of his ambition has been scaled back. As you sink into the movie years, a palpable sense of frustration sets in. In the outside world, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys were taking rock into fresh and exciting territory, while Presley was stuck churning out dreck like “Carny Town” and “Shake That Tambourine.” From this perspective, the sudden emergence of a strong track like “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” seems like a minor miracle.

Signs of life return on Disc 15, with songs like “Guitar Man” and “Too Much Monkey Business,” and then you can breathe a sign of relief through the 1968 Comeback TV special and 1969 Memphis sessions. But the energy starts flagging again on Disc 20, as songs of lesser quality creep back in (not to mention all those live albums). Once again, Presley is left behind as rock progresses beyond him. The easy-listening tempos and cabaret flourishes have made him a follower, not an innovator, and he sounds increasingly tired. You’re too often left wondering what Presley could have accomplished, instead of marveling at what he did achieve, though that dichotomy itself is what gives Presley’s story much of its drama.

Even in Presley’s last years, there’s an occasional crackle of excitement when a number like “Promised Land,” “I’ve Got a Feelin’ in My Body,” or “Hurt” emerges. Taken together, the sheer amount of material offered here, from purely ecstatic to utterly forgettable, makes this an impressive body of work.

The sound is excellent throughout; the masters have been re-transferred from the original tapes, and only remixed “in cases where no original mix exists.” Though this in itself isn’t as big a selling point; over the years, Presley’s catalogue has been reissued with consistently better sound, unlike The Beatles’ catalogue, most of which wasn’t available in good quality on CD until the 2009 reissues. That being said, there are still noticeable differences; the sound on the Memphis 1969 sessions, in particular, is superior to Legacy’s reissue just last year.

The set also includes a 240-page hardbound book that will please collectors. The set’s track listing provides recording information for each song. A timeline, compiled by producer Ernst Jorgensen and author Peter Guralnick, provides fascinating commentary on each U.S. single, EP and album, including sales figures and chart positions. Their preferences about the material are clear; there are extensive entries for releases they like, while lesser works, like film soundtracks, are dismissed in a single sentence that says nothing about the music, only how many copies the record sold. Artwork is featured for every release, along with other photos. There’s also an accompanying essay by Guralnick, as thoughtful as one would expect from the respected author of the Presley biographies “Last Train To Memphis” and “Careless Love” (Goldmine was able to see a galley of the book, but not the final, full-color edition).

It’s all packaged in a beautifully designed case. A lot of care has gone into producing this set. As all the material is previously released (even the information in the book is available elsewhere, like Jorgensen’s “Elvis: A Life In Music” book), the high-end presentation is key. Would you like all of this material in one lovely set, itself suitable for display? Then you’ll probably find it a fine collectible — and one you can listen to, to boot.

For related items that you may enjoy in our Goldmine store:
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• Get the new John Lennon book: "John Lennon: Life is What Happens, Music, Memories & Memorabilia"

• Buy the brand new edition of "Goldmine Standard Catalog of American Records 1948-1991, 7th Edition"