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Welcome back to The Elvis Costello Song Of The Week®, our ongoing attempt to drive you ever-deeper into the catalog of the musician who most embodies the Trunkworthy mission.
The week’s pick: “Little Triggers,” from This Year’s Model (1978)
Gary Stewart: It seems counterintuitive that any song from This Year’s Model could be underexposed, especially in the strange universe that is Trunkworthy. But “Little Triggers” fits the bill. I took it for granted when the album hit in 1978, which is when I (and the world) first heard the Elvis Costello & The Attractions sound I loved: aggressive, poppy, and confrontational. Coming in between “Pump It Up” and “You Belong to Me” on side one felt out of place — a slow number amongst angry rockers (my oversimplification at the time). But it turns out I missed one of the best soul ballads Solomon Burke never covered, and that’s more than enough cause for repentance.
It wasn’t until recently that I paid close attention to the lyrics. I noticed that each verse had him rhyming four words in a way that would even challenge Sammy Cahn. And it’s not just about cleverness or even craft; it’s how it feels. You’ve been there: stuck in a relationship, knowing there’s no way you’re getting out of this thing alive or without serious damage.
This Year’s Model made me a Costello convert when it came out. It had all the anger I liked from punk rock, the smarts of the best music punk wasn’t trying to make extinct, and the best of the few things I was connecting with in my record collection, but I rarely listen to it anymore—except for this song. These days, I spend more time with Costello’s last ten years looking for songs like this one, which are hiding in plain slight.
David Gorman: I had a pretty strange relationship with this song as well. I’ll admit that when I was really digging into This Year’s Model I was too young to grasp most of what matters about it. I was sucked into its surface thrills of energy, melody, snappy rhymes, weirdo organs, and palpable anger, which I identified with on a visceral level—even if I wasn’t world-wise or self-aware enough to know what any of it meant.
“Little Triggers” was the album’s breather, a little break in the musical storm,. But for a kid who always sought comfort in sad, slow tunes, I heard it as the album’s heart. Let’s be clear: Given my lack of experience with romantic relationships at the time, the song might as well have been sung in Swahili, but its desolate mood , Elvis’ cracking voice, and the doo-wop harmonies buried deep in the mix instantly connected with all the loss and confusion I’d experienced up to that point.
Eventually, I grew into the lyrics and related to them. It’s funny (or sad) that Costello was much younger when he wrote this song than I was when I finally understood it, which is either a testament to his gifts as a songwriter or my emotional immaturity. Either way, this song occupies a rare space for me, like the Charlie Chaplin films I first fell in love with as a little kid but didn’t appreciate until I was an adult. “Little Triggers” grew up with me, revealing its meaning when I was ready to understand it.
PS: Slap on your headphones and listen closely to the very end of the song. You’ll hear Elvis let out a soft, falsetto whimper that cracks in just the right spot. It’s all the broken pride of the song distilled into a single breath. Perfection.
Another Elvis Costello Song Of The Week, another song added to our Elvis Costello Song Of The Week playlist. Enjoy.