[23 July 2012]
If you feel uncomfortable singing along to “You Belong to Me” (which is pretty much inevitable if you have functioning vocal cords and even the slightest appreciation for pop music—this song’s refrain ranks among Costello’s catchiest), you’re probably a decent human being. The author’s romantic possessiveness and sexual neuroses that are merely hinted at in previous selections like “No Action” and “The Beat” reach their volcanic acme here (just look at the song title), where they stay for the impassioned remainder of the record.
The song begins with a twangy guitar riff which foreshadows the vocal melody in the verse. The guitar during this introductory section feels a little rhythmically off (incidentally, similar sloppiness occurs in “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding” off the following record). It’s no revelation that Costello’s guitar-playing is the Attractions’ weakest link, and it’s really only noticeable when the instrument is isolated (like it is here) or at the front of the mix (as it is in “Peace, Love & Understanding”). Mostly Elvis’ guitar plays a purely textural role; he’s a rhythm guitarist after all, excepting his occasional “excitable”—and sometimes regrettable—leads. After two measures of just guitar, a tambourine submerged in reverb enters the mix (illuminating this slight rhythmic disparity). Pete Thomas plays a straightforward “bumblebee” fill on the snare, and the rest of the Attractions enter. Steve Nieve’s faux-organ is particularly jarring on this track, as he mainly sticks to a higher register, responding to each one of Elvis’ lines during the verse with a melody of his own.
Costello’s trademark sneer is extraordinarily, and appropriately, threatening on the opening line “What are you girls gonna tell your mothers?” The band builds up in the pre-chorus (even Costello, reportedly a “very loud singer in the studio”, sounds like he’s exercising restraint) before exploding into the refrain. The transition’s signaled by another snare fill, and some of Costello’s most boorish innuendo: “You act dumb, you say you’re so numb / You say you don’t come under his thumb”. After Elvis sings the words “goodie-goodie”, all of the instruments seem to hang in suspension, anticipating the rhythmic “hit”, while Bruce Thomas plays a baseline in direct response to the vocals (certainly one of his most brilliant and memorable contributions to the album).
The second verse is rife with clever—if hollow—sexual innuendo (a line-by-line interpretation would be crassly gratuitous). “Your eyes are absent, your mouth is silence / Pumping like a fire hydrant / Things you see are getting hard to swallow / You’re easily led, but much too scared to follow”—the awkward-sounding last lines suggest Costello’s attachment to the words and seeming disregard for syllabic correspondence (also see: “anesthetize” in “Radio, Radio”). Costello’s note-y repetition of the words “you belong to me” during the bridge are reminiscent of the “Eastern”-sounding vocal coda to “I Want to Tell You” by the Beatles, off of Revolver—like its closest sonic relative “This Year’s Girl”, “You Belong To Me” also sounds like a mid-‘60s Stones or Revolver-era Beatles song (think “She Said, She Said” or “Got to Get You Into My Life”).
Live renditions appear on both Live at Hollywood High and Live at the El Mocambo, and “You Belong to Me” remains a staple of Costello’s live set even now. On both these recorded performances, the band “grinds” before the song resolves, as opposed to fading out on the recording. It’s also worth mentioning that “You Belong to Me” closes the first side of the original record—the contrast between it and the following, far less energetic track “Hand in Hand” is somewhat lost if you’re listening to the album in any other form.