Artist: Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Title: Beyond Belief
Description: album track, Imperial Bedroom
Release date: 1982
First heard: circa 1999
I’ve got a fee-e-ee-ling
I’m going to get a lot of grief
Although late to his albums, I can honestly say now that I listen to Elvis Costello in his prime in a state of awe. It is not to overstate the case to reveal that when I am in the presence of his finest work, I feel a real sense of privilege. And none more keenly than when I listen to Imperial Bedroom, the second of his LPs to invade me during the aforementioned lull at the end of the century when I forsook new music and flooded the gap with albums by classic artists I felt I had to get to know better.
Aware and noncommitally fond of his singles from Watching The Detectives through to A Good Year For the Roses in 1981, the first Elvis album I bought during that self-educational pre-millennial frenzy was Punch The Clock, from 1983. I was instantly hooked by the jaunty likes of Let Them All Talk and Everyday I Write The Book and the morose glory of Pills And Soap and his reclamation of Shipbuilding. So, Imperial Bedroom, released a year earlier, I came to from the wrong direction.
To name Beyond Belief, its opening track, as my all-time favourite, may seem odd, especially among all those memorable singles, not all of them hits, and the more obviously “important” Pills And Soap and Shipbuilding. Let’s be perfectly clear: I could list about 25 Costello songs, most but not all with the Attractions, that sit at my top table. I could make my selection from pretty much anything on Blood & Chocolate, or Get Happy!!, or Goodbye Cruel World, or King Of America, or the Attractionless Spike and Brutal Youth, or even, hey, The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet, perhaps its highlight I Almost Had A Weakness. (I’m rustier on his more recent works, but that must be resolved in my own time.)
But Imperial Bedroom does not put a single toe wrong, from its beguiling Barney Bubbles pastiche of Picasso to the orchestral fade of Town Cryer. And hearing track one Beyond Belief just makes me excited as it means I’ll soon be listening to the cheeky Tears Before Bedtime, the torrid Man Out Of Time, the heartbreaking Almost Blue, the gossamer Kid About It, and the crooked waltz of Imperial Bedroom itself, which came only as a bonus track on the CD (typically for Elvis, the title track of an album rarely features on that album – you’ve got to love that about him, the ornery fellow).
Beyond Belief, a short hop at two and a half minutes, drops us without much warning into Fabs engineer Geoff Emerick’s studio environment: a little hissy, dare I say, which suits the energy of the performances and with enough reverb to give melodrama to Elvis’s voice; out of a simple bassline and some tickled hi-hat and a barely audible sustained keyboard chord it comes, “History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats,” he trills, almost blue already. (History doesn’t repeat here, of course, as it’s the first Elvis album without Nick Lowe at the controls.) He’s mannered, of course, dipping down in self-parody, rising up for the line, “in a very fashionable hovel,” and I truly understand why, like Dylan’s, certain respectable adults have a problem with his voice. That nasal voice. Almost sneering. But these are the elements which I love about it. And the clever wording around which he wraps his tonsils!
I think it was the way this opener ensnared me at first listen that keeps me coming back to it, to sup from the fountain. Who but McManus would even construct phrases like “this almost empty gin palace” or “her body moves with malice” or “locked in Geneva’s deepest vault” and expect them to fit into a two-tiered pop song? Around every corner with this erudite songsmith you get a new arrangement of the English language that intrigues and challenges and paints pictures every bit as colourful and bendy as Barney Bubbles’. “You’ll never be alone in the bone orchard”? I mentioned awe, right? It’s like reading a great novelist, or listening to a great orator at the stump, or seeing a beautifully but assymetrically framed shot in a foreign film. I’m not even sure at this remove what Beyond Belief is about, and that’s the alchemy. Most Elvis songs seem to be about relationships gone South. This one certainly “seemed so appealing” but now it’s “beyond belief.”
About a minute in, Pete Thomas goes all over his kit, and the song prepares to go up a gear; there’s even a gunshot, or what sounds like one. By the time Steve Nieve’s piano cascades we’re into full pulp fiction mode: a lot going on at a high level of emotion, in a very confined space. It’s head-spinning. And it doesn’t really have a chorus, it’s kind of all verse. I guess you might even dismiss it as a kind of intro, rather than a song, an establishing shot, a mood-setter, but it has it all, from where I’m sitting, even if it does fade out way too soon. Hello, cruel world.
I’ll admit to going for long periods without calling up my Elvis Costello and/or the Attractions albums, and I always wonder why. As a lyricist of quality and distinction, he’s in the superleague. As a singer of character and tenacity, he is out there on his own. As an albums artist, he’s David Bowie with a band. To quote Town Cryer, from the end of Side Two, he’s “a little down, with a lifetime to go.” Amen to that.