This past weekend was my birthday, and as per my annual tradition, I mostly spent the day with my mother and my wife watching U2 stuff. The last thing we watched before bed this year was U2’s 1988 theatrical release, Rattle and Hum. During the segment of the film wherein the band visit Graceland, the movie got paused and my wife and I had a lengthy conversation about Elvis Presley – how she used to be a big fan, how she loved his movies (just like Larry Mullen, Jr.) and how when the news broke that Elvis had died, she didn’t recognize the image that the news program used because Elvis no longer looked like the handsome young man he had once been. One could easily make the argument that Elvis had been used up – eaten, if you will – by America, and that got me thinking about the song “Elvis Ate America”, from 1995’s Original Soundtracks 1, the album by U2 side project Passengers.
The lyrics to this song came from the end of a poem, titled “Elvis: American David” that Bono had written a year before the song was recorded. The poem’s title is a reference to the line “Elvis became the most famous singer in the world since King David.” A performance of this poem, taken from the 2003 television special Elvis Lives, can be viewed on YouTube. Another recitation was aired on the BBC in 2009 and is still available for listening on their website. The poem is both complimentary and derogatory, and takes a hard and honest look at the life of “the king”. Like the poem’s subject, the poem was a bit controversial, especially when it was broadcast in 2009, for some of the language it contains. (Some of those same words are contained in “Elvis Ate America”, so if you’re easily offended and you’ve not heard the song before, you might want to avoid that song and also the recitations that are linked to here.)
Musically, “Elvis Ate America” is a kind of tribal hip-hop, heavy on rhythmic percussion, synthesized bass, electronic samples and what sounds to me like discordant piano. “Elvis Ate America” also contains some vocal work by Howie B, who would go on to be heavily involved with the sessions that produced the Pop album. It sits comfortably alongside the experimental techno and ambient pop music that makes up the rest of Original Soundtracks 1, but it is unlike anything else that U2 (or Passengers) have ever recorded. It lacks many of the signature elements that make up the rest of U2’s catalog, like Bono’s passionate vocals, Edge’s uplifting guitar, or Adam’s rock-steady bass grooves. It’s interesting to listen to, but it’s not great music.
Like most of the album it’s from, “Elvis Ate America” has never been performed live. Frankly, I don’t think that it is the kind of song that would make for a very successful addition to a live U2 concert. It would feel more at home being recited in a coffee shop than it would on-stage at a rock concert. If the band can come up with a new arrangement for the song, I would welcome it’s appearance, but otherwise, it might be best to simply snippet the song occasionally.