Listen to this track by musical chameleon, vocal titan and otherwise folk-jazz-whatever singer-songwriter Tim Buckley. It’s “Song Of The Siren”, the version which appeared on his 1970 album Starsailor.
The song had been around for a while, featuring in particular on his 1968 musical guest appearance on the very last episode of The Monkees TV series, of all things. In that appearance, the song is decidedly folkier and more vocally polite than the one you’re hearing here. Buckley was a restless artist, constantly on the move and seemingly driven to push his own artistic boundaries, sometimes to a fault when considering his commercial footholds, or lack thereof. During his particular era, changing tracks musically, or in fact building one’s own track from scratch, was a trickier thing than it is today. The template for that kind of career wasn’t quite set across the board.
Regardless of all of that, Buckley’s “Song Of The Siren” is one of his best known songs, even if it appeared on an ablum that wasn’t exactly mainstream-friendly. So, was Buckley trying to accomplish by retooling it?
In addition to escaping strict genre guidelines, I think he also wanted to free his material from those limitations as much as he wanted to free himself. By the end of the 1960s, he was working on songs for three different albums, including Starsailor. He would produce all three records himself. This leads me to believe that despite the perception that he had drifted off course, musically speaking, he actually had a pretty clear plan about how he wanted the songs to sound and on which respective album they belonged. Blue Afternoon would be the mainstream singer-songwriter record, using material he’d worked on from his first career phase and adding jazz flourishes. Lorca would be the avant garde vocal album. And Starsailor would be the operatic free jazz album.”Song Of The Siren” may seem like a counter-intuitive fit in this context, given its folk-rock roots. But, Buckley was on an oceanic journey. In this, this song makes sense within his recorded catalogue during his most adventurous (or to some, misadventurous) career phase.
The song draws from no less than Homer’s The Odyssey, and Odysseus’ tangle with the titular mythical creatures, luring sailors to their doom with their melifluous voices and beautiful faces. The highly stylized operatic singing style he uses fits the drama of the song, arguably more than his earlier folk-rock voice which you can hear on early verions of “Song Of The Siren”. In this, it’s just as easy to think it’s Buckley himself who is the siren here, leading us off our course to what we expect a singer-songwriter album of the early seventies to sound like. There would certainly be implications for those invested in Buckley’s success, given that his albums during this period were not exactly easy to market. Like Lorca before it that same year, Starsailor is not an easy record to digest, and certainly not one to put on casually. It didn’t sell well and Buckley’s career was headed toward the rocks by 1970, lured there by his own artistic curiosity and at the expense of commercial momentum.
Even if Buckley was drawn toward the shoals artistically speaking, his diverse catalogue shows that he had the raw talent to do whatever he wanted to do. Perhaps this was the most infuriating thing of all for those looking to make money off of his music, or who wanted to see Buckley himself thrive financially as a recording artist. Eventually, he would shift his style again when he cut a trio of funk-rock records in a bid to sell to a wider market. But even then, his subject matter was pretty raw at times, with lyrics that dealt with starkly carnal themes not exactly fitted for radio play. It seems like with Buckley, there was always some kind of catch that kept him from his full potential for mainstream success.
Tim Buckley’s odyssey as a musician was a series of charted (and very uncharted) courses beset by all kinds of perils, both financial and personal. Unlike Odysseus, he would never reach home. He died virtually penniless at the age of 28. But, his influence across all kinds of musical streams would endure, particularly with Dead Can Dance’s 1984 version of “Song Of The Siren” that would introduce Buckley’s material to a whole new audience. This is not to mention his indirect role in the career of another singer named Buckley, also fiercely determined to chart his own course across a variety of musical oceans, also using a vocal instrument that was almost supernatural in its suppleness, and also never to reach home.
To learn more about Tim Buckley, check out timbuckley.com.