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This week’s pick: “Tripwire,” released on Wise Up Ghost (2013)
Gary Stewart: Wise Up Ghost, Costello’s collaboration with The Roots, is many things: a partnership that’s both surprising (new tricks for both of them, even given their broad spectrum of previous coworkers) and fated (given the encyclopedic musical vocabularies both partners bring to the table). The album is so good and such a relative departure that I wish it had been issued under a fake name with new super-group nomenclature (à la Tin Machine or Sugar). That way, people wouldn’t have looked at it as just “the next album from Elvis Costello.”
Most of the tracks on Wise Up Ghost are inspired by current events, situations, and calamities, with the sound to match: noisy, rhythmically dense poetry, proclamations, cacophony, confrontation, and chaos. “Tripwire” is slower and sadder but no less potent. Thematically the record’s a modern-day version of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, especially this song, which starts gently with a sample riff off Costello’s best-selling record Spike (from the Bacharach-inspired track “Satellite”).
On the surface it’s the kind of pop song Dionne Warwick might have tackled if she had ventured outside of her traditional romantic subject matter. But when the lyrics begin to sink in, you notice that while the tone is less confrontational, the subject matter is unnerving. “Tripwire” is about how perceived slights become aggressions, how extremities based in religion and cultural identity can become misunderstandings that finally devolve into intolerance, violent conflict, and worse.
The song is also part of a continuing theme Elvis has been exploring since “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace Love and Understanding” and “Shipbuilding.” The first was an attempt to turn a song originally conceived as a joke into a serious question, and the second was a more serious examination of the hypocrisies, fallacies, and tragedies of war. “Tripwire” starts as a lamentation and ends like a plea for peace, coexistence, and more importantly, survival.
David Gorman: When I think of a “sad, slow song,” I usually think of the heartbroken ballads I wrapped myself up in while pining for someone who didn’t love me, fantasizing about a slow-dance lit by an empty jukebox in an old New Orleans bar. I certainly never imagined a slow drag set to a song about our sad, predictable patterns of hate and war. But listening to “Tripwire,” it seems totally appropriate to grab someone you love and hold on to them for dear life in a tight embrace, dancing to the end of the world. This isn’t about broken romance, but it’s very much about lost love—it’s just that it’s a love that’s bigger than any two people and the consequences of its loss are catastrophic.
Protest music has taken on many forms to incite its audience and I’ve been fired up by seething folk singers, sneering punks, righteously raging MCs, and, of course, soul singers from Sam Cooke to Marvin Gaye to John Legend, who channeled the church in their pleas for change. But in creating what might be the first protest song you can truly slow-dance to, Elvis and The Roots crew found a way to open up a new vein. Rather than evoking anger, “Tripwire” evokes profound sadness, which is a totally valid response to the mourning of lives lost to intolerance.
Yeah, I get that change comes from action, and action comes from people who stand up and march with fire in their hearts and determination in their eyes, but “Tripwire” is a song that lets you leave your strength, your indignation and your fight at the door for a few minutes to just wallow in the mire. It’s OK. War and the politics that march us toward it are miserable and the feelings of impotence as we watch it unfold in front of us are legitimate and real. Lord knows we’ve all opened a bottle and turned to sad songs to deal with less profound issues than mass human suffering and our powerlessness to intervene. So pour a drink, dim the lights, wrap your arms around someone special, and sway to the sound of a world gone wrong. Maybe in the morning you’ll have the strength to pick up the fight.
Sad songs, happy songs, love songs, political songs, country songs, soul songs, punk songs . . . you get the idea. Our Elvis Costello Song of the Week playlist covers it all: