Elvis takes a 1926 Al Jolson hit and turns it into one of his most audacious No.1s – a production so sepulchral that he had the studio lights turned off to do it and an utterly commanding performance. From a distance the record seems a piece of irredeemable kitsch – its hushed strum, measured delivery and wodge of mock-oratory point to a track taking itself far, far too seriously. But actually listening to its 3 minutes 7 seconds I find “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” completely believable. Its quietness is a clever stroke – it demands reciprocal silence, it makes me pay attention to a thrillingly direct Presley performance. The assertive severity of the arrangement means Elvis can be restrained, never really having to let his voice loose until the very final verse: instead he can use it to perfect a tone of polite disdain for his fickle lover.
And then we get the wonderful spoken word passage, in which the King turns positively Presidential. The curt “Honey – you lied” turns the song from a matter of heartbreak into a matter of honour, and as Elvis works through the theatrical metaphor I’m left amazed that he never won respect as an actor. (Maybe giving him Shakespeare to do instead of Blue Hawaii would have worked!). And as in many of the best revenge songs, the singer doesn’t just hurt here; he smoulders too.