I know that you have all read in the past about my mixed feelings regarding The Unforgettable Fire album. Well, this song, “Elvis Presley and America” probably encapsulates those feelings more than any other. To start with, the music is just a slowed-down version of the backing track from another song on the same album, “A Sort of Homecoming.” Frankly speaking, I don’t like the fact that the band allowed Brian Eno to do this. It makes the song feel cheap to me like it’s a paltry imitation of the original track. Secondly…the lyrics. I have yet to read a coherent transcription of the lyrics to this song. I know that Bongolese is a thing, and it has its place, but the final version of an album cut isn’t where I want to hear gibberish lyrics. To be clear, I don’t blame Bono here…the story goes that Brian Eno talked Bono into getting this off-the-cuff recording of Bono’s first impression of the track. Bono thought that this performance would just go in the garbage, or maybe a part of it would be used in the final mix, but then Brian convinced the band that the whole cut was worth keeping as an experiment.
Now that I’ve vented my spleen about all of the things that I don’t like about “Elvis Presley and America,” I have to say that the song is simply gorgeous. The keyboards are lush, the percussion is hypnotic, and Bono’s voice…oh! that voice! You’re all probably sick of me talking about this, but Bono has one of those voices, where the lyrics don’t have to be about anything, but the voice still says so much. The pain and longing in this song, the passion…it is utterly glorious. And look, I know that the music is a rip-off of “A Sort of Homecoming,” but I still love the way it builds to a climax in this track, with the subtle addition of acoustic guitar partway through, and the pounding drums…in so many ways this is almost a perfect U2 track, incorporating all of the elements that make the band so great. It is a great song despite all of its flaws. Maybe even because of those flaws, because the real attraction here, just like my love for the band in the first place, is all about heart. Courage and passion, which this song has in spades.
Of course, for a song that has somewhat “artificial” beginnings, “Elvis Presley and America” has never been performed live. I imagine that some fans find the song boring because it doesn’t feature any big dramatic guitar solos or grooving bass lines, so those fans are just fine with the song being skipped in live performances. It is a long, slow song that doesn’t have a lot of variation from beginning to end, so I get that. I doubt that U2 will ever perform the song live…too many people would simply be lost, but on record, as a studio experiment, it is hard to think of a better example of what U2 is all about.