It should come as no surprise that the new Elvis arrives sans pompadour or leisure suit. Billy Ray Cyrus is an Elvis for the '90s, a buffed-out hunk who oozes sincerity and wears one of those string ponytails with his short-cropped cut, a do that implies a history of vestigial wildness.
This hint of danger underlying the wholesome romantic lead is powerful stuff, but Cyrus lacks the ambiguity that Elvis was steeped in there's no sneer to go along with the "yes, ma'am" here. The well-calculated sex appeal, though, is there in spades. It's worth recalling that before Elvis was officially canonized, his appeal was almost exclusively to women. Jealous boyfriends, aficionados of harder-edged rockabilly and most critics had plenty of bad things to say about Elvis before he was turned into an icon of the good old '50s that exist only in nostalgia-shaded revisionist memory.
Just as Elvis dragged country music kicking and screaming into rock & roll territory, Cyrus signals another generational change. It Won't Be the Last completes the transition that high-profile country music has been undergoing in recent years to a sound fashioned out of the conventions of '70s arena-rock bands. This transformation has accelerated so rapidly that Cyrus makes his predecessor, Garth Brooks, sound like Grandpa Jones by comparison.
It Won't Be the Last is so completely a rock album, it sounds like it could be the new release by Bob Seger or Bruce Springsteen, two '70s rockers who share Cyrus' fascination with Elvis. He even sings like Springsteen on "Talk Some" and rocks out enthusiastically on "Ain't Your Dog No More" and "Dreamin' in Color, Livin' in Black and White." Producers Joe Scaife and Jim Cotton assemble a virtually perfect rock production, a gleaming, machinetooled aural juggernaut that has blockbuster written all over it.
Cyrus does his part, singing with much more skill and packaged passion than he did on his debut album. He's obviously been taking vocal lessons. But the key to the Cyrus appeal is his ability to speak directly to the women in the audience. It Won't Be the Last codifies the Cyrus persona. Our hero is dumped on, cheated on and jilted by faithless women whom he still loves anyway because that's the kind of guy he is. Billy Ray senses something is going wrong in "Only Time Will Tell." He blames the world for tearing his relationship apart in "Right Face Wrong Time." He warns of dire consequences in "Throwin' Stones." The woman leaves a kiss-off note beside the ring he gave her in "In the Heart of a Woman." He still can't mend his broken heart in "Somebody New." His grief compounds as he counts the days of misery in the title track. Even when he goes to the closet and tries on his old high-school sweater, he finds a "dear Billy Ray" note in the pocket that reminds him of another failed romance.
This is terrific material for the soapopera set who gobbled up the first act, "Achy Breaky Heart," but when you punch it up with stronger material and a more convincing performance, the comparisons to the Big E become inevitable. Billy Ray saves the best for last, recruiting the Jordanaires to sing backup vocals on the out-and-out Presley tribute "When I'm Gone." "When my pillow's bare and you're lying there," croons Cyrus in his best "Love Me Tender" form, "What'll you think about me when I'm gone?" The screen test can't be far behind. (RS 665)
(Posted: Jul 17, 1997)
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