This song is named, of course, for the famously eerie Edgar Allan Poe story. A murderer would get away with it, as he hides the body beneath his floorboards. But he hears the victim's heart still beating, ever more loudly... and he imagines his impromptu guests do as well. He is tormented by their nonchalance-- surely they must hear it too, and are taunting him with their blase chitchat! How it ends, you likely know; if not, I am not one for spoiling an ending.
Simon, writing here as Landis, uses the image of a heart that gives the game away as the inspiration for a romantic tale.
The speaker begins by explaining that, while he notices his ex-girlfriend with her new beau, with whom she is seen "everywhere," he only "pretend[s]" indifference. "Foolish pride makes me hide/ My tell tale heart." In fairness, simple good manners would probably dictate the same course of (in)action. She knows how he felt for her, but it's over-- what good would his mentioning it do?
He has moved on as well, it seems. But again, all is not as it seems beneath the, um, floorboards. "Other cheeks close to mine/ Make believe I can deceive/ The tell tale heart." This is unfortunate for his new significant other as she is led to believe that she has his full attention and affection, yet does not.
Through all of this deception, he knows his own truth, and he is now starting to believe that his masked emotion is not very well masked at all. His tell tale heart is going to tell tale-- or as we say now, "tattle tale"-- on him.
Here, the music, which was smooth and Latinate and accompanied by a hushed vocal, shifts dramatically into surf rock. "Many a romance may break up," our speaker realizes, "Many a teardrop will fall/ But the beat-beat-beat of a tell tale heart?/ That is the worst fate of all."
The "beat-beat-beat" in the case of the Poe story, and in the case of this tale, serve a similar purpose-- to reveal a secret that the speaker feels may be no secret at all. "Everyone can see through my outward calm and innocent mien; they all know my guilt," each feels.
At least our speaker has the nerve to admit to himself that, "Deep inside, I still know/ That I love, love you so." His conclusion? "It's clear I need you near/ This tell tale heart."
Be that as it may, he does not have very many practical options for resolving his situation. He would have to overcome several obstacles-- ending his new relationship, getting his ex to end hers, and then making it work now with someone it did not work with before.
Yes, he must move on. But first he must get over her, or risk having his love for her poison every relationship he has going forward. And first of all, he must admit to himself that he is not over her, a realization his relentlessly throbbing heart has driven home.
This is a remarkably sophisticated song, even beyond its literary reference. In a very short space, Simon has sketched out a classic tale of love, longing, and regret. It is full of pain and sadness, and even fear... of being discovered, and having his personal anguish leak out and hurt others.
This is a very emotionally mature and self-aware work, especially from one so young.
Next Song: Little Doll Face