The first thing I ever read about Jeff Buckley was in a local Toronto free newspaper – Now Magazine – that reviewed the then-new EP Live at Sine from a new and upcoming artist who happened to be the son of 60’s and 70’s singer-songwriter Tim Buckley. I remember being skeptical, my instant association with the sons of rock legends being mostly centered on Julian Lennon. But, that was before I heard Grace. In the review of the EP, it described Buckley as adventurous and musically ambidextrous, tackling Edith Piaf and Van Morrison with equal aplomb, while performing his own songs as well. Coming out of the fashion conscious eighties and into the early nineties, this was dangerous territory, and perhaps almost a decade later it still is. What were we to do with such an artist in terms of categorization? Was he his father’s second coming? Would he be the leading light that he seemed to be? What was he about?
Unfortunately, not many questions were answered before his accidental death in 1997. All that was left between Live at Siné and the legacy of demo tapes and first run recordings of an album that was eventually released as Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, was this sole statement completed to Buckley’s own satisfaction; “Grace”. I’m sure, based upon what his mother and inheritor of his musical legacy, Mary Guibert has said, that Buckley would want this album to be the reference point to who the man himself was and not any romanticized ideas which his premature death may inspire in writers or fans.
Quite rightly, the centerpiece of this remarkable album is Buckley’s voice, the best and most powerful instrument he had at his disposal. The voice itself could be sweet and savage, vulnerable and raucous, and the range is displayed admirably and is the binding force that holds the record together. The material is diverse, from the haunting opener “Mojo Pin”, which slowly builds to a threatening climax from Buckley’s delicate guitar figure and croon to the growling ferocity of the song’s conclusion. There is a sense of the kind of spiritual emptiness and the anguish that it causes in the title track that follows. The line “wade in the fire” which is repeated in the chorus of the title track “Grace” is reminiscent of Robert Johnson’s hellhound, tenaciously trailing the narrator, and reflected again in the song “Eternal Life” which is “on my trail”, a spiritual yearning bolstered by an angry wash of guitars, guttural bass and drums.
It is the dark side of human experience, its intrusive presence and subtle undermining nature that Buckley seems to be exploring here – what else should an album called Grace explore, this human neediness for salvation? “Lilac Wine”, a cover of a song made a standard by Nina Simone, fits the mold here as a portrait of someone trapped in the cage of hopeless love, of attachment to something which cannot be, coupled with the inability to face up to reality. Likewise, another cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” evokes the biblical figures of King David and of Samson, men of considerable power who are undone by their own weakness, delivered by Buckley in an almost childlike voice, giving the song an extra dimension of lost innocence.
The theme of loss is further explored in the soulful “Lover You Should Have Come Over”, a gospel flavoured look at love’s tragedy. The album’s closing track, “Dream Brother” is an exploration of the artists own troubled past. Having known little of his father and with only a name which “the one” has left behind, his pleading to all who would love him not be leave a remnant behind of themselves, but rather to keep their promises.
Darkness and loss cause us to ask the oldest questions – where is love? What is happiness? What is Life? Where is Peace? It is here where “Grace” finds its greatest success. It connects with human struggles without sounding forced because it is carried by a voice and a performance that can fulfill the promise of the message. We believe Buckley. We believe every note. This is a real statement of artistic merit, an acknowledgement that beauty and tragedy are facets of one another and cannot be reduced to formula, or reduced at all.
- The legacy version of the original Live at Siné disc. This is a two-disc set, with more than double the music of the original release. In many ways, this is the purest form of Buckley there is; just him, a telecaster and amp, a small audience in a very small bar, and a photographic memory holding songs which extend from Led Zeppelin, to Billie Holiday, to The Band, to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
- Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. This is the first tapes of the album Buckley was working on just before he died. It contains new tracks, along with some cover versions (including a fascinating solo rendition of Genesis’ ‘Back in NYC’) and rough demos on the second disc. At very least, get this for his take on the traditional ‘Satisfied Mind’, which was played at his funeral.
Listen to Jeff Buckley sing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’
To view the clip, hover over the image below and click the ‘play’ icon. Enlarge the viewing window by clicking the magnifying glass icon. Enjoy!