Song of the Day #247: ‘Beyond Belief’ – Elvis Costello

imperialbedroomSo now we come to Imperial Bedroom, the second album in my Costello Holy Trinity and probably my favorite of his records. To paraphrase Ed Wood in Tim Burton’s film: “This is the one they’ll remember him for!”

To be fair, Costello will be remembered for far more than Imperial Bedroom, not least the fact that he can put out an Imperial Bedroom as well as a country album, a classical album and a Burt Bacharach album. But this is certainly a highlight in his discography.

The album features what has to be the best opening track in recording history, ‘Beyond Belief.’ Has any song so immediately and effectively engaged listeners in an album as this one? It’s a triumph of production, performance and wordplay and among the best tracks Costello has ever recorded.

Like most of Costello’s songs, ‘Beyond Belief’ is about a lot of different things. But it is almost definitely about, once again, the battle between the sexes. I read the middle section (starting with “in this almost empty gin palace” and ending with “and then leave discreetly”) as the description of a failed pickup attempt in a bar. That theme is summed up in the penultimate stanza, referencing “so-called gentlemen and ladies” who “dog-fight like rose and thistle.”

This song also contains one of the best verses in any Costello tune: “Charged with insults and flattery, her body moves with malice. Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?” That sort of verbal sleight of hand (tongue?) almost isn’t fair to others out there toiling in this trade.

History repeats the old conceits
The glib replies the same defeats
Keep your finger on important issues
With crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues

I’m just the oily slick
On the windup world of the nervous tick
In a very fashionable hovel

I hang around dying to be tortured
You’ll never be alone in the bone orchard
This battle with the bottle is nothing so novel

So in this almost empty gin palace
Through a two-way looking glass
You see your Alice

You know she has no sense
For all your jealousy
In a sense she still smiles very sweetly

Charged with insults and flattery
Her body moves with malice
Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?

And now you find you fit this identikit completely
You say you have no secrets
And then leave discreetly

I might make it California’s fault
Be locked in Geneva’s deepest vault
Just like the canals of Mars and the great barrier reef
I come to you beyond belief

My hands were clammy and cunning
She’s been suitably stunning
But I know there’s not a hope in Hades
All the laddies cat call and wolf whistle
So-called gentlemen and ladies
Dog fight like rose and thistle

I’ve got a feeling
I’m going to get a lot of grief
Once this seemed so appealing
Now I am beyond belief

3 thoughts on “Song of the Day #247: ‘Beyond Belief’ – Elvis Costello

  1. Amy says:

    This was probably the song that first revealed to me what a genius Costello is. The music, the pace, his vocals, and, of course, the lyrics – Wow! I have always adored the line you quoted about (“do you have to be so cruel to be callous?”) but reading the lyrics right now, I’m loving “My hands were clammy and cunning/ She’s been suitably stunning/ But I know there’s not a hope in Hades.”) How right you are that his gifts put him in a completely different arena than almost everyone else in the industry. Suitably stunning? I could spend a good bit of time analyzing those two words alone.

    Fabulous song from an unsurpassed album.

  2. Dana says:

    It’s funny, I was going to quote that last verse (My hands are clammy and cunning…) the other day as one if his greatest lyrics, but then I second-guessed myself as to whteher others would find it so immediately special. Clearly, I am not alone in loving these lines!

    I see this song as less about a battle of the sexes and more as a tongue in cheek assessment of the base and predictable qualities of your average Joe who finds himself pathetically drinking in a bar, likely an addict in denial, trying to pick up women, thinking he is somehow different or special, when clearly he is nothing of the sort–and this song reflects his epiphany that the life he is living is really empty, shallow and pathetic. It may (or may not) have coincided with Costello’s own maturation from living the rock life (sex, drugs, partying) to a more satisfying existence. In his Spectacle show, while interviewing Rufis Wainwright, Elvis mentioned that transition and, though he did not mention this song or which years encompassed that transition, I can see this song, and more broadly this album, reflecting that change in him as both an artist and a person.

    Needless to say, I love this song and I love this album–it is probably my favorite album of all time by any artist, period.. As far as I’m concerned you could do a theme week on nothing but this album. But, since you are not likely to do that–let us please pay proper tribute to the genius of songs like Shabby Doll, Man out of Time, Almost Blue and Human Hands–these are some of the best songs ever written by one of the best songwriters of our generation.

  3. Clay says:

    This was definitely the hardest album to narrow down to one song choice (though YouTube helped out by not featuring several of my favorites).

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