Ryan Nelson is best known for his visual art: his excellent painting and creative illustration, which you can view at his archival site, www.ryancarrollnelson.com.
He is also a founding member and songwriter of two rock bands, Soccer Team and Minutes.
Ryan was originally a drummer. He played drums in the influential DC punk trio The Most Secret Method. And he played drums in Beauty Pill many years ago. He is one of my favorite people to talk to. He's soulful and fun and he enjoys thinking things through. My kinda guy.
I knew that I wanted to write about Elvis Costello's "Beyond Belief" to kick off this One Song project. And I knew I wanted to talk about it with Ryan.
What follows here is a transcription of our conversation. It gets a little bit circuitous and scattered sometimes because we're really just old friends chatting enthusiastically.
But I think it's worth a read if you too love the song.
Chad: You actually brought this song up to me one day in the touring van. You brought it up to me. I don’t even think we were listening to music at that moment. Just out of the blue, you said “Do you ever think about how fucking crazy ‘Beyond Belief’ is?” And I remember thinking “OK, I’m definitely in a band with the right guy.”
Chad: But what was interesting to me is you focused your amazement with the song on the sound of the song.
Ryan: Yeah, I think it’s like the bravest mix for a song ever. [laughs] In any band I’ve ever been in, I don’t think I would ever make those choices and… get where they got. It is a very, very strange mix. And the tune of the song is so spacious and the music is wide open. And, in the end, when it really starts cooking… it fades out. [laughs]
Chad: And it’s a quick, brutal fade too.
Ryan: The Attractions are like, killing it at the end there. The drums are going off at the end. He’s really laying into it at the end of the song! But, yeah, the mix is just crazy. I mean, it’s really just kind of bass and vocals. Like, it’s huge —
Chad: — I just noticed today I don’t think there are any guitars in the song. [Note: There is guitar, it's just very faint and muted.] I never noticed that before. I hear no guitars at all.
Ryan: I have to listen to it again. Which is funny because I know that song so well. I’ve probably listened to “Beyond Belief” more than any other song… besides Van Halen’s “Unchained.” [laughs]
Chad: The thing that always struck me about the song — and I’ve said this before — was the fact that the melody doesn’t ever repeat until the end. And the words are amazing. It’s like James Joyce. It's like T.S. Eliot —
Ryan: — I was talking a little bit about this with Ike [Ryan’s bandmate in Minutes]. I had tried using it a little bit in class [Ryan teaches English] but it’s a little bit beyond high school, especially with the subject matter. But I asked him if he ever used it because he teaches college. And he said “Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s like T.S. Eliot!” [laughs]
There’s so much to this two minutes of music, it’s crazy. You know how you said there’s no guitar in it? This song is the thing that… You know, I didn’t actually like Elvis Costello. I didn’t hate him, I wasn’t actively against him, but I had a lot of friends that were kind of mad for him. And I just didn’t get it. I would hear the songs and… you know, they were okay. But this song and the song “I Want You” kind of unlocked Elvis Costello for me.
The thing about Elvis Costello that I didn’t get is I gravitate toward riffs. When I listen to a song, I listen for riffs. I listen for the elements of songwriting, as I am familiar with them. So if I listen to a Beatles song and I can imagine John writing a riff and coming up in with lyrics and the rest of the band filling it out and making it into a song.
But with Elvis Costello songs, I very often don’t hear an initial riff. So I think that’s why I didn’t necessarily like Elvis Costello and the Attractions at first. And now I just think it’s amazing. Because, of course, it starts with that and then in the studio, decisions are being made to add stuff, to cut stuff, to edit stuff and to really, you know, do what the song needs. You know what I mean?
And “Beyond Belief” is probably — I’d love to know how they recorded it because… [laughs] I don’t know how they got there! [laughs]
Chad: Yeah, it’s really mysterious.
Ryan: What was the initial riff for this song? I’ve heard rumors that the vocal melody was different originally. You pointed out that the main vocal melody doesn’t repeat ever, which I never noticed before.
Chad: The melody is like a non-repeating labyrinth, basically.
Ryan: Yeah! But totally beautiful, like… it’s not like… I mean, if you call it a labyrinth, that sounds like a frustrating maze. If you really want to get beautiful about it, I see it as like a spiral staircase.
Chad: Wow. Yeah.
Ryan: It’s just winding all over the place. And his voice is so low and so high. And he must be like [laughs] right on the mike, having a very personal moment [laughs]. I love the delivery, I love the mix. And the lyrics…
Without reading them, I basically knew all of the lyrics with the exception of a couple lines here and there. And if this is a song about a really pathetic guy in a bar about to mack on some girl [laughs] and he knows he shouldn’t do it… If that’s all this song is about, it is the most beautiful song about a guy about to mack on a girl in a bar… [laughs]
Chad: It opens with “History repeats the old conceits / the glib replies, the same defeats”… I really thought that was an open-ended and wistfully philosophical, maybe abstract set of words. You know, like he’s talking about the sweep of human history…
Ryan: In the world of literary criticism, as long as you can justify your interpretation, you can knock yourself out with whatever, you know what I mean?
Ryan: But, I mean, if you think about later when he says “charged with insults and flattery / her body moves with malice…” I mean, if you think about it, he could mean “history repeats this same old game between a man and a woman in a bar.” The glib replies, the same defeats. A guy approaches a woman and says flattering things that are also insulting, because she’s being objectified.
Ryan: I also love “Keep your finger on important issues with crocodile tears and a pocketful of tissues.” It’s kind of like talking about topical stuff and acting like you really care about something, but you really just want this woman’s number. [laughs] It’s really pathetic!
Chad: It never occurred to me as a simple pickup scene before.
Ryan: The craziest thing… Where the song is heavy… where the weight exists is in the characterization. You get a real picture of these people. Not just like “Oh, he’s drunk.” This is somebody who, just because of the way it’s written, is living and breathing. You know?
Chad: And we get the sense that it’s dark because of the apparitional mix and the floating, kind of suspended way that the drums work to keep the song aloft.
Ryan: I gotta say I love “And in this almost empty gin palace.” Maybe it’s getting late in this bar. “Through a two-way looking glass, you see your Alice.” Like looking at someone through the bottom of a pint glass.
Chad: — or like the Lewis Carroll hallucination-like “looking glass,” meaning “mirror portal into a dreamworld.”
Ryan: Right. And “Alice” suggests real intoxication! And “In a sense, she still smiles very sweetly” and “In a sense” is like “innocence!”
Chad: I was just about to bring that up! And I always heard it as “You know she has no sins —- not sense —- for all your jealousy.”
Ryan: Yeah, that’s how I heard it too!
Chad: I think he’s doing all of this stuff on purpose in a very old-fashioned British poet kind of way.
Ryan: There’s a great poem by Yeats that is called “The Scholars.” It’s really short. The way I read it is he’s complaining about old scholars who edit and annotate poetry. And they’ve forgotten what it’s like to burn with passion… They’re just embittered old guys. And one of the lines is “All shuffle there, all cough in ink…” like the way I see it is like dispassionate coughing when they’re editing somebody’s work. But then we have this great thing here where we have the word “coffin.” You know?
Ryan: If you think about it in those terms, what I’m saying… “Beyond Belief” is a classic poem. It’s an amazing poem. It hits you in the gut. It’s amazing!
Chad: There’s a sense that this is written about (or even by) someone who is really under the influence. And “I’ve got a feeling I’m gonna get a lot of grief…” is like that dark moment when you suspect that your happy, festive intoxication —- the nice buzz of a few drinks —- is going to lead to nothing but desolate oblivion. Like, feeling like “I’m really lost and I’m feeling this tremendous despair and I don’t have the apparatus to get out of it.”
Chad: I want to go back to your observations about the mix and the performance.
Ryan: There’s a special quality to the vocals that makes it seem like it might be a love song. But I read “I come to you beyond belief” as being like “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
Ryan: “Now you find you fit this identikit completely.” He is just like all the other dudes who have come before and done this exact same stupid dance. “Once this seemed so appealing…” Going to bars used to be fun, but now you know how pathetic it is… and you still do it. “Beyond belief” is like “I can’t believe I still do this.”
Chad: That’s interesting.
Ryan: That’s the way I see it. If you think about the first line… “History repeats the old conceits…” He never lets go of that first line. Because near the end, he’s like “But I know there’s not a hope in Hades…” —- like, he’s gonna strike out.
Ryan: And then it comes back to the history. “All the laddies catcall and wolf-whistle. So-called gentlemen and ladies dogfight like rose and thistle.” Good God have mercy! “Rose and thistle?” Fucking England and Scotland? [laughs] The history of warring England and Scotland? [laughs] I mean, who writes that?
Chad: The line about “not a hope in Hades…” I never took that to refer to striking out. I heard it as a broader expression of despair about the world.
Ryan: Maybe! Yeah, I like that too. Some Elvis Costello songs are pretty direct. Some are the opposite. Like there’s a song on King Of America called “Suit Of Lights.” I’ve listened to that over and over again and I cannot figure that out. It’s beyond me.
Chad: You seem to be drawn to the more unusual things in his catalogue. Like “Beyond Belief” and “I Want You” and “Suit Of Lights.” They’re kind of the outliers…kind of striking, anomalous experiments…
Ryan: [laughs] That’s true. I don’t know why…
Chad: Imperial Bedroom was, I think it was the 5th or 6th album? He didn’t have the reputation then of being a relentless, restless genre experimenter. That’s his reputation now —- he does stuff with string quartets and The Roots and jazz bands etc —- but back then his path wasn’t clear. He had thrown only one real curve ball, which was the Almost Blue album right before this one. That was, like George Jones-style country music. It didn’t sell well and reviews were mixed. But the label had a hope and expectation at the time that he would “get back to basics” and make another killer, bullseye straightforward rock album. And he followed Almost Blue with Imperial Bedroom, which was… just like exasperating to the marketing department.
Ryan: [laughs] Right.
Chad: And the only way the label could respond was to put the words “Genius” and “Masterpiece” in the record store posters… followed by a question mark.
Ryan: That’s what they did?
Chad: If you go and look at ads for Imperial Bedroom in Rolling Stone from the period and it just says “Genius?” [Note: I got this is wrong, the ad actually says “Masterpiece?”]
Ryan: That is insane. That is absolutely insane. I mean, but even the cover of this record…
Ryan: I’m thinking now and maybe you’re right, I do gravitate to the stranger things… because of the lyrics. I’ve heard that “Suit Of Lights” is about his father. I don’t know what “Suit Of Lights” means exactly. I also love that first song on Blood And Chocolate. That song is a bold move too. It’s this sort of stomping, tribal beat over a driving rock song. It’s a really weird feel…
Chad: Yeah, but to the label, that was a return to the Elvis Costello that they found easier to market. Which is this snarling, bitter dude that nerdy guys in college could relate to. And so, he’s going back to that… Blood And Chocolate kind of suited the corporate angle on him.
Ryan: Getting back to “Beyond Belief.” I like that it sounds like a love song and it’s absolutely not a love song. When you read it, it’s like a confession.
Chad: It’s interesting to interrogate the concept of “I come to you beyond belief.” It rolls off his tongue, but what does it mean exactly? It’s like a terrain that…
Ryan: …When you say terrain, it’s interesting because he actually does talk about terrains. “California’s fault” and “locked in Geneva’s deepest vault.” I’ve been to Geneva, they have more banks than… [laughs] It’s kind of the industry of Geneva. And I love “the canals of Mars,” this fantastical thing that people saw from a distance and just imagined… the water… which turned out not to be the case. And then there’s “the Great Barrier Reef” which is just this massive thing you can see from space.
Chad: He starts zooming all over the place, which is almost like a… vertigo thing. I always thought those references were just a psychedelic journey as the person in the song is spinning down this existential vortex. I never thought of it in any kind of representational way.
Ryan: That’s perfectly valid. And I may be laying too much on this, but to me, all of this stuff keeps going back to that first line. History. There’s this feeling that nothing is new… even, you know, the size of the world and the planets…
Chad: There’s even a Nick Lowe joke in there, I think. You know that song “You Gotta Be Cruel To Be Kind?” He reverses it with “Do you have to be so cruel to be callous?” There’s a lot of shit in this song!
Ryan: I wonder if Elvis Costello could hear us talking about this song, would he laugh?
Chad: Probably. We’re being ridiculous.
Chad: Here’s what I think. I imagine the writing of the song was actually done in a stupor of alcohol. I imagine that it was an inspired, drunken writing session.
Ryan: But it’s so clearly --
Chad: -- Well-crafted?
Ryan: Yeah… well-crafted, and it’s so insightful about that state of mind. It doesn’t seem like you would be able to get there if you were actually inebriated.
Chad: Maybe you would, though? There are certainly brilliant songs about drugs that were written under the influence of drugs, right?
Ryan: It’s true that there’s a long history of writers who hit the bottle pretty hard. But I don’t know… “Beyond Belief” seems very, very clear.
Chad: I do think there was a deliberate artistic strategy to do something advanced and provocative. I think that this was an interesting choice to recover from Almost Blue, this country record that was not totally beloved, to do something even bolder, as opposed to retreating and apologizing.
Ryan: I would kill to have been a fly on the wall during those sessions. I mean, what the hell happened on the tape when they’re fading out? [laughs] What was going on? I mean… the outtakes must be insane.
Ryan: The female character in this… there are those lines “glib replies, same defeats” and that line “She’s been suitably stunning.” He makes this character complicated. She’s not just this beautiful thing that he is going to hit on. She’s like, you know, a human being! She has complex reactions to the things that are happening in the bar.
Chad: He definitely self-indicts. He portrays himself as creepy and predatorial. “My hands were clammy and cunning…”
Ryan: I mean, think of the “catcall and wolf-whistle and dogfight” part of the song… everything is animal…
Chad: [laughs] Ryan, I have to stop us here, because we’ll go on forever! You’ve been absolutely amazing. And I thank you so much.
Ryan: I want to just close by talking about James Joyce for a second. You brought up James Joyce earlier. I think there’s a quote about “Ulysses” where he actually admits, like, “I put enough crazy references in there to keep the English professors guessing for years.” [laughs]
Ryan: Like James Joyce says “Haha!” [laughs]