JORGE FARAH: There are some Elvis Costello songs that are so deeply ingrained in my memory that attempting to write about them becomes a process of blindfolding finger-pointing at a diorama of superlatives. There are some songs that I’ve listened to so many times that I can’t adequately verbalize why they work so well except to say “just listen to this.” Now I’m going to try to tell you about a song that is sometimes my all-time favorite Elvis Costello song, but, seriously—especially if you haven’t heard it before—please just listen to it. As always, there’s a link at the bottom of this post.
“Favourite Hour” is the closing song to Brutal Youth, an album that signaled Elvis’s “proper” return to rockn’roll after his 1993 collaboration with The Brodsky Quartet and a couple high-budget pop experiments. It was Elvis’s first real “loud” record since 1986’s Blood and Chocolate, as well as the first album since to feature The Attractions (though, interestingly, the album is not credited to Elvis Costello and The Attractions, presumably because Bruce Thomas only played on five out of the 15 songs). It’s one of my favorite Elvis albums because it combines the pop hooks, aggression and drive of his early work with a more thoughtful, refined approach to songwriting, honed by two decades of perfecting the art. But this song isn’t a loud, absurdist tale like “My Science Fiction Twin”, or a snarky send-off like “All the Rage”. This song isn’t boisterous. This song doesn’t really sound like anything else on Brutal Youth, or really anything else on any Attractions album. This is a gentle, mournful, quietly devastating piano ballad that sounds like something from a completely different album, far removed from the “20% Amnesia”s and “13 Steps Lead Down”s of this one. It’s interesting that it functions as an album closer and also as a kind of title track. I can understand why – it’s too solemn and final to fit anywhere else in the tracklist, and too good not to release – but to me this always seemed like a song out of time; something that would’ve fit perfectly in The Juliet Letters (with a few slight lyrical adjustments) if he had only written it a year earlier.
Regardless of the fact that it’s probably in the wrong album, “Favourite Hour” is still among Elvis’s most accomplished pieces of songwriting; a perfect convergence of subject matter and musical composition. The song, apparently born out of a writing prompt from a songwriting workshop Elvis himself was leading somewhere, describes the creeping realization of terrible truth: the anticipation and melancholy of a death-row inmate on his way to his hanging, his desperation faded to profound sadness and regret. A song that flirts with “prettiness” for the length of the verses only to be knocked down dread’s darkened corridors by the fractured chords in the chorus; the vocal melody attempting briefly to ascend to something less dour, but receding promptly back into the grey. The album version is gorgeous—Elvis accompanying himself on the piano, his tentative and unadorned playing focusing the listener’s attention to the melody and the sentiment of the lyrics, his vocals lined gently with reverb. The words describe a very specific scenario, but universality in art is anchored in specificity, and I’ve always felt like these lyrics could apply to any instance of regretful longing. In the tradition of the Great American Songbook, Elvis is a master at finding the space where both truths can converge.
There’s also a full-band demo version that was released with the Brutal Youth reissue, and it’s just as beautiful; Pete Thomas turns it into a kind of funeral dirge. And the most harmonically fleshed-out version of the song is the showstopping live performance from My Flame Burns Blue, with accompaniment by jazz orchestra The Metropole Orkest, which propels the song to a whole other level of drama. All versions are great, but the original on Brutal Youth will always have a special place in my heart. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s the first version I heard, or if it’s just the ridiculous amount of times I’ve listened to it throughout my life, but I feel like it’s a part of me in a way only a handful other Elvis Costello songs are. It’s a genuine wonder to me that more people haven’t covered it, but maybe that’s for the best.
KEVIN DAVIS: “Song out of time” is right – in fact, it took until the 2006 release of My Flame Burns Blue for me to truly “get” this song, not because there’s something inherently superior about that particular version but because Brutal Youth just wasn’t ever an album I went for when I was in the mood for mournful piano ballads. That said, each of the three versions of this song offers something that the others specifically do not, and since Jorge did such a nice job addressing the more universal qualities of the song, I’d like to take a minute to look at the differences between its three commercially available recordings. Like “Stranger in the House,” which we covered a few months ago, the three arrangements of “Favourite Hour” are not so different from one another, but they’re different in just the right places – each one has its own character, and presents the song in a slightly different light. (Note: the list below is chronological, not in order of preference.)
- Church Studios demo, 1992: The Elvis Costello Wiki dates this version to December, 1992, suggesting that maybe it would have been around in time for The Juliet Letters, which was recorded several months prior but didn’t hit stores until 1993. Regardless, it may not have been entirely clear to Elvis at this point that the song demanded such intimacy – Pete Thomas’s percussion, dirge-like as Jorge accurately describes, sounds like someone dragging his feet in a procession, and Steve Nieve’s organ, while nicely played and adding a redemptive element that the released version lacks, is extraneous. Instrumentally, this would have been the more appropriate arrangement to include on Brutal Youth, but it least effectively serves the song; Costello’s vocal performance feels hindered by the additional instrumentation, surrendering some of its emotional timbre to its spectators. I’m happy we have this version, but I understand why it was scrapped. It’s a solitary song, and true solitude doesn’t include bandmates.
- Brutal Youth version, 1993: When I saw Elvis and Steve Nieve perform in 2004, one immediate difference I immediately noticed in their piano playing (Elvis did a few solo tunes, so we had the chance to see both men tickle the ivories for a while) is that Nieve is a concert pianist who treats the piano as an end while Costello is a songwriter who treats the piano as a means. Similar to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young, his playing is endearingly “functional” – chords plodding along in perfect time with few frills, exclusively as harmonic support for the vocal melody. In the case of all of these artists, there is something about this style of playing that feels critical to creating the illusion that the listener is honing in on a private moment; compared to something like, say, “Shot With His Own Gun,” which is a bit out of EC’s depth as a pianist and therefore demands the listener acknowledge the presence of professionals in his proximity, “Favourite Hour” feels like an intimate internal dialogue inadvertently captured in stereo. This is not so inappropriate an end to Brutal Youth, I suppose, in a lot of ways Elvis’s rawest album (to this point in his career, only Blood and Chocolate contained so many songs that so emphasized Elvis’s unapologetically shambolic rhythm guitar playing), and certainly a record born out of its own share of internal turmoil. Suffice it to say, once I had the epiphany, I found myself seeking out Brutal Youth for mournful piano ballads a lot more often.
- My Flame Burns Blue version, 2004: I know I said that there isn’t necessarily anything inherently superior about this version of the song, but I still think it’s my favorite, the sole determining factor being that I think this is the version that Elvis sings best. Not only do the added years in his pipes suit the subject matter, the sense of vocal discipline and control over timbre that EC accumulated through his experiences recording Painted From Memory and North are exactly the touches this song calls for, particularly in the orchestral environment of MFFB. While this version begins with a sort of overture that sets the stage for the drama in the song, the Metropole Orkest interfere minimally with the song’s more basic structure once Costello and his piano take over. Rather, they hover spectrally in the background, swelling periodically to emphasize the gravity of the lyrics. There are a handful of other tracks on MFFB that work this way, but none of them are as strong compositionally as “Favourite Hour.”
The death-row-inmate story is new to me, and – while fascinating – only serves to illustrate just how meaningless an artist’s intentions for his own work ultimately are. This song means something entirely different to me – something I’m not sure follows as clear of a narrative as EC’s meaning, and something I’m not sure it’s even worth bothering trying to put into words, but I like it when songs work this way. The story for me is in the rises and falls of the chord progression, in particular spots where the vocal melody just soars (“So stay the hands…”), and the beautiful language (“Put out my eyes so I may never spy/The waving branches as they’re waving goodbye”); the emotional message of the song is ultimately greater than any single tale it can tell. One of his finest songs of the ‘90’s, for sure.