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 an oily slick
In a windup world with a nervous tic
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

Lyrics submitted by Mopnugget, edited by ghostbat

Beyond Belief song meanings
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  • +5
    General Comment

    Possibly the most complex, multi-layered and damn clever wordplay in pop music history. As someone said upthread these lyrics are worthy of T.S. Eliot. Perhaps this could be called the "The Wasted Land". However much as Costello is applauded these days he is still underrated (except maybe by Colbert who truly seems to appreciated the guy.)

    Irishmonkon January 25, 2010   Link
  • +4
    General Comment

    I agree with most of what's written so far. Some is spot on with how I react to the song. Others are close enough, & I quickly see how the take is derived from the lyrics & performance. The blend of vocals & instrumentation in "Beyond Belief" is a big measure of its musical greatness. The words are saturated with poetry. What's been pointed out about "in a sense" & "insults & flattery" shows how consciously constructed the song is to deliver dualities that play off each other.

    Summarizing its meaning is a task similar to pining down Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" ~ there is a surface text to the immediate situation in the world of the speaker of the lyrics, commented upon by the songwriter, & these weave & meld interacting with a mythology riffing off of poetic universal & socio-historical standards, mingling with the listener's life experience. On the skeleton of the words is a complex body & it speaks to the soul.

    In a discussion with a woman friend about Cohen's song, we disagreed about the verse There was a time when you let me know what's really going on below but now you never show it to me, do you? And remember when I moved in you the holy dove was moving too and every breath we drew was Hallelujah

    She clings to the biblical references earlier in the song to support her interpretation of these words as being about the soul & feelings under the skin & how they connect & entwine with the other. I thank her for turning me on to this window into the song, but maintain she doesn't understand the first thing about Cohen if she doesn't see the immediate meaning is him talking about what's below the belt & panties. Reading Beautiful Losers, its apparent both poetic notions co-exist, as the altar of the woman is where Cohen prays.

    Costello's song is filled with the similar simultaneous poetics. Thanks for the observation about the brilliance of "canals of Mars & the Great Barrier reef." This lyric knocks into the immediate world of the man at the bar who wants to discover the world of a woman.

    I get the notion of the speaker as aging pick up artist, but I assume he is the lonely guy in the bone orchard watching other men chase the women while he watches & drinks. This reminds me of the opening line from The Beautiful South's "Liars Bar," "sitting in a bar alone where no one knows your name is like lying in a grave yard wide awake." You can take "oily slick" two ways: he's the slick one with the lines, or as I take it, he's the residue in these waters, alone & timid.

    I think he gets his courage up after draining a glass. It's not in the mirror behind the bar I see him looking when I hear "through a two way looking glass you see your Alice," but through the bottom of a clear pint glass. When the place is "almost empty" (as is his glass [a nod in my mind to Pete Townshends "Empty Glass"], he is filled with his observations & the alcohol enough to be out of his mind to approach a woman) he steps up to speak. He is spurned, or interprets her actions as spurning. I imagine him skipping small talk & trying to convince her about something deep. He doesn't feel real in the place; he's the tortured identikit. He may see all the others as transparent layers of faces going through motions (the "laddies cat call & wolf whistle, so-called gentleman & ladies"), while he has rich, complex, quiet personal thoughts. Either way, he doesn't feel like he has a chance, he's threatened by his timidity & their sure-footedness, so he leaves. Someone else might imagine he says the right words & leaves with the woman. One could even take it so far as his "clammy & cunning" hands move to unlock her fault vault canal, but I don't think this is in the cards for our man. He takes home with him unfilled desire. He sees the ritual for what it is & the players for who they are, but he can't participate.

    oosik49on February 12, 2012   Link
  • +3
    General Comment

    I've enjoyed the lyrics to this song for years, even though I misheard some critical lyrics. I, too, thought the line was: " I'm just an oil slick in a wind-up world with a nervous tic." Also, I always thought this song was about a jaded, sleazy pickup artist. First stanza talks about his pickup routine, sometimes successful, sometimes not ("History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats'). Part of his arsenal was to feign interest in causes to get the attention of his target ("crocodile tears," etc)

    When he writes "Charged with insults...," my take is that he has aroused the interest of his "Alice" with a banter that mixes flattery and mild deprecation.

    He then is disgusted with himself for being the consummate empty pickup artist, and thus "beyond belief" ("And now you find you fit this identikit completely").

    Most of the rest of the song is a gauzy look at his post pickup encounter with "Alice." California's fault, Geneva's vault, Mars' canals = metaphors for female anatomy. Then the lyrics fan out more generally into romance and the battle of the sexes.

    My take anyway. Could be totally off.

    poolhallaceon August 26, 2008   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    This is stone-cold genius. Tom Waits and Bob Dylan are great, and I know people already give Elvis a lot of credit, but he deserves it a lot more than Dylan. Dylan writes great narratives but often things become repetetive or meandering, and the musical edge pales in comparison with Costello. Long live the king.

    Candesvaraon October 05, 2002   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    What a wonderful lyric. It seems to me to be about hanging around in a bar, trying to pick anything up, knowing disappointment is in store no mater what how the evening ends up. Cheery, isn't it?

    Zubbyon June 17, 2006   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    A gin palace is a particular kind of ornate Victorian pub of which some still survive. There are a few great examples in Liverpool where EC spent a couple of teenage years. Bone orchard is a common term for a cemetery in Liverpool (and elsewhere I believe).

    paul_fon August 09, 2006   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    What I really like: "Just like the canals of Mars and the Great Barrier Reef/I come to you beyond belief." What a brilliant association. Galileo was the first person to view Mars through a telescope, and Darwin explored the Great Barrier Reef. Those two jarred the belief structures of their times with their scientific explorations. They went 'beyond belief' in a sense. Elvis is singing here about being beyond believing in romantic love (in the ways people pursue it anyway), but in those lines he's associating it with 'belief' in another sense in an intriguing, subtle and powerful way. It doesn't get better than this in pop music -- the way he makes his suggestion in those two lines is worthy of T.S. Eliot.

    dobrydenon July 03, 2007   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    Just brilliant. But I've always heard the line as: " I'm just an oil slick in a wind-up world with a nervous tic."

    lunaburningon November 09, 2007   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    hey dobryden, cool...i mean, i picked up on the images--in the chorus--being of things which provoke disbelief or awe...but to find such a precise connection! i'm sure it was entirely intentional.

    in the liner notes elvis says something like: the two key songs are titled "beyond belief" and "man out of time", so do I really need to explain further? on the personal level, the first title indicates costello was at a point in his life where he could no longer believe in anything (himself most of all, I'd guess)

    if you're "charged" with insults and flattery, does that carry a heavier sentence than assault and battery? unless you're innocent, in which case it might not matter. innocence, in a sense...

    if you live in a fashionable place, how can it be a hovel? well, if you have nervous tics, which a battle with the bottle might worsen rather than relax--and torture and death are on your mind; the cemetery seems not so far away--your hands are clammy, and you're nothing more than a smear skittering across the ocean: doesn't all this suggest the place you live is dilapidated, soon to (in at least one sense) fall apart?

    the place you live: it's one answer to the question: "where are you?" which is a question threatening to put on the table all kinds of "issues" you might prefer to "clam" up about. where are you? your body. and it's not so appealing...in fact, it's a mess. you look like hell (hades)

    your hovel is about to be condemned. in a sense, it's already been thoroughly condemned...in merely two minutes and 34 seconds.

    foreverdroneon June 17, 2008   Link
  • +2
    General Comment

    I particularly like "do you have to be so cruel to be callous?" brilliant line about someone over-doing their insults.

    also good is "dogfight like rose and thistle." great reference to the history of bloodshed between the english and scottish.

    woodenflooron September 25, 2009   Link

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