It’s not an overstatement that Jeff Buckley was one of the most singularly talented musicians of his generation; blessed with a beautiful and athletic voice, a more than adequate guitar technique and an ability to write songs that escaped from predictable verse/chorus patterns while remaining accessible. Additionally, Buckley is also emotionally wide reaching, able to jump between brash lustiness and eloquent emotional expression.
Buckley was only able to record one full album before his Memphis drowning in 1997, and although Grace is an immensely powerful debut in places, it’s also flawed by some material that doesn’t fit and it’s not quite the great album that Buckley potentially had in him – it’s unfortunate that he’s most remembered for his cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Halleluah’, rather than his own great songs. His album of demos for his second album is also well worthwhile, but his estate has also released a long string of live albums and outtakes that I’ve never bothered with.
Jeff was son of avant-garde folkie Tim Buckley, who led a similarly short life before succumbing to a heroin overdose; the elder Buckley actually died younger than his offspring, even though his recorded output is much more voluminous, as Jeff Buckley didn’t record Grace until he was already 27. The younger Buckley barely knew his father, and tried to avoid comparisons; instead common reference points include Led Zeppelin and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Jeff Buckley Album Reviews
Grace is a frustrating album, even more so in hindsight, as it’s the only album that Jeff Buckley completed before he drowned. Most of Buckley’s originals are great, and a whole album of this standard would be a contender for best album of the 1990s, but Grace is dragged down by the inclusion of three covers. Even if Buckley’s is the definitive version of the Leonard Cohen standard ‘Hallelujah’, it still drags at close to seven minutes, while the other covers are just plain dull – ‘Lilac Wine’ has a foppish, wispy quality that’s not very appealing, and Buckley’s ability to warble his way through Benjamin Britten’s ‘Corpus Christi’ is technically impressive but monotonous.
Grouped together in the middle of the album, along with the drawn out and melodramatic ‘Lover You Should Have Come Over’, there’s a definitely lull in momentum, and when the blistering, nasty ‘Eternal Life’ kicks in, it’s a breath of fresh air. Award for standout song, however, goes to the tour de force ‘Last Goodbye’ which ties together most of Buckley’s appealing aspects; powered by a memorable bass line, it’s a fluid song that’s accessible yet completely lacking any clear verse/chorus structure, is emotionally eloquent, and simultaneously rock hard and beautifully sensitive. Other notable songs include the title track, with some terrific guitar work with the fast arpeggios in the introduction and the trippy flange as the song climaxes, while the closing ‘Dream Brother’ is scarily prescient with its last line “Sleep in the sand/With the ocean washing over me.”
It’s unfortunate that Buckley never had the chance to make another album – he had the obvious potential to be one of the greats, and uneven as Grace is, maybe sublime moments like ‘Last Goodbye’ are alone enough to secure a legacy.
Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk
Buckley drowned in a Memphis river in May 1997 on the eve of beginning band rehearsals for his followup to Grace, and this posthumous sophomore album was pieced together from demos completed during the preceding few months. A two disc set, the first disc comprises of official studio demos recorded with Television guitarist Tom Verlaine, and mixed by Grace producer Andy Wallace, while the second disc comes from more informal sessions, often just by Buckley on four track.
It’s better to think of Sketches as a single album with a bonus disc rather than a double album per se. Buckley’s mother, Mary Guibert, who pieced this set together, referring specifically to the lyrics, stresses that “these were works in progress, still in the process of metamorphosis”, but it’s an effective set nonetheless, and it’s not weighed down by boring covers like Grace was. The most arresting track here is ‘Everybody Here Wants You’, which explores an R&B flavoured territory that’s ideally suited to Buckley’s clear falsetto; it’s a shame that he never had the chance to explore this area further. Similarly beautiful are ‘Opened Once’, ‘Morning Theft’ and ‘You & I’, oozing emotion from their minimalist arrangements. ‘New Year’s Prayer’ is almost mantra-like in its repetitive groove, while ‘Vancouver’ successfully marries a delicate melody with a thrashy arrangement. ‘The Sky Is A Landfill’ is bristling and raw, while the cover ‘Yard Of Blonde Girls’ is similarly hard edged.
The second disc can be tough to sit through; I’m not enough of a fanatic to care about the two alternate Verlaine mixes that open the disc, while the poor sound quality makes some of the other tracks difficult (the bass pulse that runs through his cover of Genesis’ ‘Back In N.Y.C.’ is particularly irritating), but some of these songs are definitely worth saving even in this crude form, like the lavicious ‘Your Flesh Is So Nice’ and the unadorned cover of ‘Satisfied Mind’.
Because Buckley’s discography is so small, if you’re a fan Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk is totally essential – the first disc may not be exactly the end result Buckley had in mind, but it’s still fascinating, while the messier bonus disc also has its moments.
Five Favourite Jeff Buckley Songs
Everybody Here Wants You
The Sky Is A Landfill