Tuesday, August 28, 2007

“Favourite Hour” / Elvis Costello


One thing I've only recently realized about Elvis Costello -- what a powerful singer he is. I don't just mean his ability to put across a song; he's always had that. I mean what an amazing set of pipes the guy's got -- volume, range, tone, control, the whole bit. Now I go back and listen to his great torch songs, like "Alison" and "Almost Blue" and "Shipbuilding" and the entire album North, and it simply floors me that I didn't home in on this before.

"Favourite Hour" is the last track on EC's disgracefully underrated 1994 album Brutal Youth, but it's anything but an afterthought. (It does contain the album's title phrase, in the poignant line "Now there's a tragic waste of brutal youth.") Elvis himself writes in the liner notes "I believe it is among the very best songs that I have been fortunate enough to write" -- and I'd have to agree. It's telling that he wrote this after recording The Juliet Letters, his foray into classical music with the Brodsky Quartet. Even in the relatively spare arrangement here -- just hushed piano and vocals -- "Favourite Hour" has a romantic sweep and grandeur we hardly ever get in rock music.

The image-crammed verses are dark indeed, with lines like "Pray for the boy who makes his bed in cold earth and quicklime" and "The tricky door that gapes beneath the ragged noose" and "Put out my eyes so I may never spy," but he counteracts that effect by singing them with calm, stately authority, in his tenderest low voice (how far Elvis has come from the days when he used to spit out acerbic puns at breakneck pace!). I love how the melody proceeds delicately downward on each line, like the day winding gently to a close.

That's just the set-up, though, for the glorious chorus, where Elvis surges into his upper register, letting his vibrato go full throttle, overwhelming us with passion: "So stay the hands, arrest the time / Till I am captured by your touch." With a breathless gasp he pushes his voice even higher -- "Blessings I don't count" -- then pulls back, as if trembling, to add "small mercies and such." Elvis plays the dynamics skillfully, managing the cracks and wavers in his voice just right. He's got such superb technique -- but technique means nothing if it doesn't serve the song's meaning.

For a long time I thought this was a love song; commenters on this blog corrected me, telling me that it's about an execution.  Boy, did I feel dumb.  Of course it is.

As the melody winds back down the scale, he solemnly announces "The flags may lower as we approach the favourite hour." Elvis never tells us what time of day the "favourite hour" is, but I always imagine it as twilight -- a velvety, crepuscular twilight pregnant with possibility. He leaves us hanging on a diminished note at the end, wondering, waiting . . .

Favourite Hour sample


Julie said...

Great choice, Holly. It took "Painted From Memory" before I realized what a thrilling vocalist Elvis could be. He seems to do everything well.

ilesofsmiles said...

Was it ELVIS week or sompin?


Rob Pallot said...

I agree Elvis Costello is a brilliant singer and lyricist - he gets me every time.

BUT, I think you have misunderstood the song's meaning. At least from how I hear it, the song is not about two "lovers" or some "woman".

Rather I think the song is about the suicide of some young man - "Tragic waste of brutal youth". The "boy" hangs from the tree - "Figure hanging on a leather band", and he will be laid to rest - "Pray for the boy who makes his bed in cold earth and quicklime".

The references to "lowering flags", and "ragged noose" and the "murmuring brooks" seem to point in that direction - from my understanding.

However, I have never heard E.C. explain this song in interviews or the like...

Anonymous said...

Wow... I thought from the very time I ever heard this song that it was about someone on the gallows... about to be executed.. certainly not a "love" song by any measure.. thoughts?

Holly A Hughes said...

Yup, I think I missed it on this one. As Rob above has also said, it's not a love song at all. I was completely misled by the gorgeous tone and the ironic title.