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...