The quiet, contemplative, “Favourite Hour” almost got lost on an album that was anything but. We won’t let that happen.

JORGE FARAH: “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 his first real “loud” record since 1986’s Blood and Chocolate, as well as the first album since to feature The Attractions. 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 amped-up guitar attack 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.

“Favourite Hour” is among Elvis’s most accomplished pieces of songwriting

“Favourite Hour” is 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 workshop Elvis 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. It’s a genuine wonder to me that more people haven’t covered it, but maybe that’s for the best.

 The three arrangements of “Favourite Hour” are different in just the right places

KEVIN DAVIS: It wasn’t until the 2006 release of My Flame Burns Blue that I finally “got” this song – not because there’s necessarily something inherently superior about that particular version, but because it’s an album that puts you in a different headspace than Brutal Youth does, that conditions your brain to listen for different things. That said, each of the three versions of this song offers something the others 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 available recordings. 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.)

      1. 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, this version suggests that it may not have been originally intended to be presented so delicately – Pete Thomas’s percussion, dirge-like as Jorge accurately describes, sounds like someone dragging his feet in a procession, and Steve Nieve’s organ adds a color that befits the more rhythmically driven arrangement. Instrumentally, this may have been the more appropriate arrangement to include on Brutal Youth, but for the sake of the song, Costello was right to scale back the accompaniment. The solitary arrangement is precisely what the subject matter calls for.

    1. Brutal Youth version, 1993: Perhaps only because I’ve watched the bonus DVD that came with North so many times, Elvis Costello playing by himself on a piano conjures up a very specific image for me – which is to say, the man himself in a room with some eclectic décor, performing in solitude, a private monologue into which we’ve somehow been granted access. The released version of “Favourite Hour” is no exception; it’s an extremely evocative performance with a great deal of presence, with a deep sense of time and place, capable of representing – as Jorge says – any number of emotional situations that may be unique to any given listener. Costello’s piano playing, as it generally is, is extremely empathetic to the composition – something I often love in piano-based performances by singer-songwriters whose principal instrument is the guitar. Dylan, Young, Springsteen – they all have songs like this (“Went to See the Gypsy,” “After the Gold Rush,” “The Promise,” respectively), where the instrument feels like its rolling out a red carpet for the words and melody. The frills are few, but the performance is stronger for its lack of busyness.
    2. 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 does the additional mileage in his pipes suit the subject matter beautifully, 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 “Favourite Hour” has always been the most special to me.

The death-row-inmate story is new to me, and – while fascinating – only serves to illustrate just how far from an artist’s original intentions a listener’s interpretation can stray. 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 ‘90s, for sure.

Our ongoing, ever-growing playlist of Elvis Costello Songs Of The Week is now more than three of our favourite hours of music: