“Beyond Belief” is the first song from that record—his best—and right away, the listener can tell something is different.
The production, handled by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, is more low key and less aggressive than previous efforts. Costello starts the song in a hushed tone and a low register, singing lyrics almost as obscure as Van Dyke Parks’ on “Surf’s Up”:
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
The opening stanza has a traditional rhyme scheme, but the pacing varies. And listen to the way Costello’s jazzy melody puts the emphasis on certain syllables:
I’m just the oily slick/On the windup world of the nervous tick
In a very fashionable hovel
Also, I love the fact that it’s a short song—about 2:30—and there are eight verses in a row. Each one has a slightly different cadence and feel. It sounds like the song is a great big circle with little bumps in the road along the way. It all builds up to one moment: Just as he finishes the line “Dog fight like rose and thistle,” there’s a quick sound effect of something breaking (!) and he jumps into the long-awaited chorus.
You get about 30 seconds of it. It’s the first time you hear the title of song. But wait: It’s already gone into a long fade! And then the song is over. REPEAT.
I love short, intricate little pop songs because sometimes they require an immediate re-listen. With a seemingly endless amount of vocal hooks and varied instrumentation, this is one of the best. It holds up after tons of repeated listenings, and sometimes, when I listen to the album in its entirety, I’ve already listened to this one twice. What a great song.
The Great Songs series so far: