Collaborating with producer T Bone Burnett as a bid for authenticity or credibility has become perhaps the most tiresome cliché of the Americana scene over the past decade. Burnett’s distinctive aesthetic simply isn’t a good fit for every artist, and the one-size-fits-all approach that artists from Natalie Merchant and John Mellencamp to Jakob Dylan and Cassandra Wilson have taken to his work has resulted in as many middling, ill-conceived projects as it has great albums. So when Lisa Marie Presley enlisted Burnett to produce her third album, Storm & Grace, it initially seemed like yet another performer’s stab at being taken more “seriously.” But it turns out that Presley and Burnett’s particular talents complement each other well, and Storm & Grace is an effortless, natural-sounding collaboration.
Though the MOR pop-rock arrangements on To Whom It May Concern and Now What didn’t always suit Presley, those albums made it clear that she has a unique, refreshingly blunt point of view. Storm & Grace‘s songs build on what worked best about those albums: her vulnerability as a songwriter and her willingness to engage with lifelong celebrity and a complicated public image in frank detail. Opener “Over Me” tempers its derisive view of a former lover’s new relationship with just a bit of regret, and the sinister lead single “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” finds Presley daring herself to get even meaner and more vindictive. “Sticks and Stones” begins as a dissection of the proverbial “other woman,” but Presley subverts the conventions of that familiar song type by mixing in some cutting, self-referential lines: “She ain’t got no talent of her own/It’s just her name.”
The songs Presley has written for the album are emotionally raw and unaffected, which make them well matched to the melancholy timbre of her voice. She doesn’t have a great singing voice in a technical sense, and she has a tendency to drawl through vowels in a way that can make her unintelligible. But she also has a sense of presence when she sings, and she can sell songs that are moody and sullen. To that end, Storm & Grace plays to her strengths; however thin her alto may be, Presley’s performances on the lilting “Soften the Blows” and the somber title track are confident and lived-in.
Burnett, for his part, knows how to highlight the things Presley does well. As a producer, he’s at his best when he creates a consistent tone, and the bleak POV of Presley’s songs allows him to do just that. He builds momentum on “So Long” with a gradual crescendo in the bassline, while the subtle mixing of a crying steel-guitar line on “Close to the Edge” reflects the song’s underlying sadness. The upright bass and two-step rhythm give the arrangement of “Over Me” a real swagger to match Presley’s attitude, and the album could have benefited from a few more uptempo tracks in that vein. Still, even when the tempo gets a little sleepy, neither Presley nor Burnett simply rest on their names or reputations.