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Elvis Costello – The Scarlet Tide lyrics

(Elvis Costello and Henry Burnett)

Well I recall his parting words
Must I accept his fate?
Or take myself far from this place
I thought I heard a black bell toll
A little bird did sing
Man has no choice
When he wants everything

We'll rise above the scarlet tide
That trickles down through the mountain
And separates the widow from the bride

Man goes beyond his own decision
Gets caught up in the mechanism
Of swindlers who act like kings
And brokers who break everything
The dark of night was swiftly fading
Close to the dawn of the day
Why would I want him
Just to lose him again

[Chorus 2x]

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  • r
    In America, politicians and the president are closest to kings. The song was written during the Bush administration which had polititians rating an all time low by ec and many others. So I think it is definitely an anti-war song and it is the fault of politians. "Swindlers who act like kings" are the politicians. "Brokers who break everything" must be the lobbiests that tempt and sway politicians, usually not for the good of the country. I also think the lyric before "man goes beyond his own decision, gets caught up in the mechanism" refers to the politian losing sight of what he go into public service for in the first place and is trapped by the political machine. Definitely a job I could not do, or at least I hope I wouldn't last at it long by not playing the game.
    Find a YouTube vido where Elvis sings the song on the Today Show. He adds a verse that starts like the first, but instead of "A little bird did sing" he says "...a black bell tolls high up in the dome. Admit you lied and bring our boys back home." No question there about the anti-war song designation. Have to assume he's talking directly to Bush on "admit you lied".
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  • r
    Ah, this is a nightmare - ec's lyrics are always complex!. He seems to convey an extraordinary depth of sentiment with only a few words.
    For example, "Well, I recall his parting words..." Do we assume that the next lines *are* the parting words ("Must I accept his fate, Or take myself far from this place"), and who is speaking them? Or is the singer referring to the person who spoke those parting words when they say "Must I accept his fate?"?
    It seems to have been written from the perspective of somebody who is deeply disillusioned. "Man has no choice, when he wants everything," but who is the little bird who made that observation? And then "Man goes beyond his own decision... swindlers who act like kings... brokers who break everything," and so on. And is the black bell a metaphor (for what? Death?), or should it be taken literally?
    The Scarlet Tide may be a reference to war, per Busk (we don't know if ec is familiar with this work (do we?), although he is widely read, I think), or it may be more generalized, as in "red rage," and may just be a general reference to uncontrolled anger. And yet, "we'll rise above the Scarlet Tide," which is then rendered impotent through the use of the word "trickles." This Scarlet Tide, whatever it is, is not a flood, but something altogether less potent, which may be avoided.
    Hmmm. Something's gone very badly wrong in this person's life; (s)he feels (s)he's been cheated by people who were serving their own ends, and have left others bearing the fallout, I think.
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