False optimism, self-delusion, and new age bromides all meet a painful death under “Alibi”‘s unrelenting glare

This week’s pick: “Alibi,” from When I Was Cruel (2002). Read the lyrics here.

Gary Stewart: It starts with an intense, menacing dub-inspired riff—the kind you’d hear on later Clash records—which lets you know trouble is coming.

“Alibi” first appeared in 2002 on When I Was Cruel, which was labeled (literally, with a sticker on the cover) “FIRST LOUD ALBUM SINCE 199?” But “Alibi” is a mix of the previous “loud” albums’ aggression with sounds, beats, and rhythms from more-recent, trip-hop electronica sides. By cataloging and then savagely dismantling a list of copouts, self-delusions, and feel-good slogans one could almost mistake it for some kind of screed about personal responsibility—a libertarian anthem of sorts. False optimism, self-delusion, and new age bromides all meet a painful death under its unrelenting, nearly seven-minute glare, but not without first crossing some of Costello’s best hooks battling it out with a hell of a groove.

David Gorman: I always thought this song could be used as a radical (and inexpensive) form of psychotherapy. Just pop in your earbuds, cue it up, stare in a mirror, and listen as every excuse you’ve ever had to come up with— from the mundane to the seriously self-pitying—gets dismissed, challenged, and mocked.

“Alibi” is a call-and-response between one man’s conflicted conscience, an inner and outer dialogue that plays out between the dark verses and the prettier choruses, twisting the knife, line after line. It’s painful stuff, offering no comfort, no empathy, and no way out. It destroys the entire concept of self-help. You did it. Now you own it. End of story. “If I’ve done something wrong, there’s no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ ” is about as bold and cold a statement as a human being can make, but it’s also one that forces us to stop hiding behind the little alibis that we constantly cook up to excuse our actions and convince ourselves and the folks around us that we’re really good people despite our actions.

The Clash reference is dead-on—the opening of the song sounds eerily like “Straight to Hell” (or, by way of sample, M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” depending on your generational reference point) and sets “Alibi” up as some dark soul-searching that I’m not sure any of us are up for. Maybe straight to hell is where this song is saying we’re headed if we rely on rationales that justify our behavior instead of actually changing it.

No lies, no alibis, the Elvis Costello Song Of The Week Playlist is here: