If you have any doubts concerning Elvis Costello’s prowess as a vocalist (which wouldn’t make you too unusual), “Little Triggers” should single-handedly put them to rest. The singer’s performance on this particular cut is breathtaking — far more intense and sultry than the singing on its closest equivalent, the prior record’s token ballad, “Alison” — and conveniently, the song is great, too (it’s pretty amazing Linda Ronstadt passed it up in favor of the relatively arcane “Party Girl” off Armed Forces; “Little Triggers” is much more of a “singer’s song”). Costello’s doo-wop appropriation here seems more disingenuously sarcastic (and vice versa) than adulatory, as it is a few records down the line on Get Happy!! — Costello and his band are simply too self-conscious for there to be any other explanation for the showboat-y 6/8 feel, overemotional piano intro, and downright comedic ending attached to the live rendition that appears on Live at the El Mocambo.
Lyrically, “Little Triggers” is Costello at his lovestruck summit. The “little triggers” he’s referring to are the ultimately tiny things — the nuances of a kiss, the brushing of bodies, an adumbrative expression on the lips — that feel momentous at the beginning of a relationship. That state of neural excitement that characterizes those early stages of falling in love, the unbearable “waiting for the call”: it shouldn’t be any surprise that Rob Fleming (Nick Hornby’s love-seasoned avatar in his novel High Fidelity) lists “Little Triggers” as number two on his list of “top five Elvis Costello songs”. “Little triggers, that you pull with your tongue / Little triggers, I don’t want to be hung up, strung up / When you don’t call up” are examples of the sort of lyrical elegance and simplicity that Costello would more or less abandon after This Year’s Model. While the star performer is Costello (naturally), all of the Attractions’ contributions to this song are invaluable and imaginative, with Steve Nieve coming in a solid second; his vivacious piano playing compliments the subject matter perfectly.
As referenced above, an even more dramatic version of “Little Triggers” appears on Live at the El Mocambo (and unfortunately not the sonically-superior Live at Hollywood High). In this version, the piano intro is substituted for four bars of electric guitar drenched in tremolo. The song feels a little sparse in the absence of the additional background vocal tracks and Steve Nieve’s piano doodles. A guitar outro (“unexpected” doesn’t even begin to describe how random it feels) is tacked on to the end of this version, and the song properly resolves instead of concluding on the tentative V chord (Elvis employs the same trick in “No Action”). “Little Triggers” isn’t merely a simplistic homage, which some seem to disregard it as. I personally feel as if it’s one of the record’s highlights, if only because of Elvis’ matchless vocal performance. And that’s saying something, considering This Year’s Model is stacked to the brim with classics.