Oh, the allure of what could have been. That is the legacy of Jeff Buckley. As many a music fan from the 90’s knows, Jeff Buckley was standing on the edge of stardom after his stunning debut when a tragic swimming accident took his life in May of 1997. The connection to a number of other rock stars who died too young; Hendrix, Cobain and Joplin has often been drawn. Also palpable is the irony of his death and the uncanny parallel to the untimely death of his father, Folk and Jazz singer Tim Buckley, which also looms over the reality of Jeff Buckley’s legacy. Over time some critics have taken strips off Buckley’s repute stating that it is more hype than deserved. They point out he had only one official release “Grace” during his lifetime and that three songs on that release were not written by him but were covers. That is certainly true, but all it takes is cuing up the album to know that the music world lost something special with Jeff Buckley’s death and his like will not come this way again.
Buckley certainly had the genetics for a great artist. As stated before his father Tim was a highly acclaimed singer/ songwriter during the late 60’s and 70’s. Jeff Buckley however only met his father once when he was eight and Tim died in 1975 of a drug overdose. However that was not the only musical influence on Jeff, his mother was a classically trained pianist and cellist and his stepfather was a musical influence, as their home was saturated in the works of rock icons like Led Zeppelin, Queen, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Pink Floyd. By the age of 12, Buckley had decided he wanted to become a musician. After briefly attending The Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood, CA he would spend time as a sessions guitarist in LA and be shopping his demo. The turning point for his career occurred in 1991 when he participated in a singing tribute concert for his father in Brooklyn, NY. This outing would be his public singing debut and he sang his father’s songs presenting a set that made a strong impression on those present. From there the music labels and industry sat up and started showing an interest in Buckley. This attention was stoked by the big name musical artists and producers who were showing up at his café performances in Greenwich Village. After a bit of an industry shoot out Buckley was signed to Columbia Records for a three-album, million dollar deal in 1992.
All of these events were the prequel to Grace. When the dust settled Jeff would record the album Bearsville Studios, Woodstock NY in six weeks. Assisting him were long time collaborator, guitarist Gary Lucas, Mick Grondahl on drums and Matt Johnson on bass. Buckley and Lucas would work with producer Andy Wallace to put the finishing touches on the release including overdubs completed in studios in Manhattan and NJ.
At its release, Grace would be lauded by a number of artists including Chrissie Hynde, Chris Cornell and U2’s Edge. The album would initially sell slowly but word of mouth and Buckley’s live performances built sales as critical acclaim also echoed the sentiments of early fans. His professional debut would transpire in a music world captured by the phenomena that was Grunge. The album was anything but the Grunge sound of the time but attracted a wide range of adherents. This was mostly because of the visceral impact of Buckley’s vocals that were best characterized as unabashed emotional expressionism, and the amazing vocal range he possessed. The album would go gold in the US and as of 2007 sell 2 million copies. It is necessary to put the release into the context of the explosion in the music world of 1994. Recall in 1994 Nine Inch Nails released “Downward Spiral”, Nirvana release their “Unplugged” album, Portishead released “Dummy” and Manic Street Preachers released “Holy Bible” all of which were massive events on the music scene of the day. Grace, by comparison, didn’t bring in mega numbers in sales, instead, it was more insidious, long lasting and its influence is still felt today. One example of Buckley’s influence is Radiohead’s legendary track “Fake Plastic Trees”. That song might not have occurred without Thom Yorke going to see Buckley in concert and realizing it was no sin to put your heart into your vocal. There were many other instances where up and coming artists of the time were influenced by Buckley’s vocal expressive ethos. What is regrettable is that there is so little material to indicate where Buckley could have gone if he had lived. He certainly danced to his own muse: he could sound utterly convincing covering the greats, making those covers seem his own, ex. Hallelujah, but also refuse to be pigeonholed. His was a voice that could jump genres effortlessly and convincingly as proven by a listen to Grace. He with the album issued intensity and epic potential.
Grace begins with the exceptional Mojo Pin. This was one of the first songs Buckley had demoed back around 1991. It starts with a dreamy ethereal intro and then his honeyed vocal as he lured the listener into his inner world where he describes a daydream in bed. The song then morphs into something more classic rock in feeling as his yearning becomes palpable, raw and exposed. He examines the torturous pleasure and the pain of love, “The welts of your scorn, my love give me more”. This spellbinding opener was aiming for the fences. The exuberant title track, Grace with the addictive guitar and the dramatic effortlessness of Buckley’s voice makes for another impactful track. Discussed is the beauty of the concept of Grace and the embodiment of grace in a person. It is hard to hear certain lyrics as they now seem a portent to the misfortune very soon to occur, “My time has come, it reminds me of the pain I might leave behind… and I feel them drown my name.” this creates a bittersweet edge to the glorious beauty of this song. This track alone is evidence of all the potential that was there in Buckley’s abilities.
Last Goodbye was a breakup song that again holds more meaning now in retrospect when the lyrics are reviewed, simply implied by the title of the song. However taken in context it is a touching examination of what went wrong in a relationship eloquently written, “Well maybe it’s just because I didn’t know you at all…was there a voice unkind in the back of your mind saying you didn’t know him at all.” The song ponders do we really ever know another. The sonic is breathtakingly panoramic, powerful and conveys an honesty that is brilliant in its insight
The emotional build-up of the first songs takes a breather with his cover of James H. Shelton’s Lilac Wine. Here he displays his intuitive phrasing skills and commanding vocal range. This is an emotive performance where Buckley digs deep to win over the listener as he presents a world as it should be and not how it is. Going from strength to strength Buckley unleashes So Real a blues-infused rocker that builds slowly and then explodes to a cranking rock climax. There are unforgettable Led Zep tinged guitar motifs throughout the song that make it so satisfying. That sonic follows the lyric as in the first verse it is all about wish fulfilment the second verse a nightmarish event and all the way along a fight with the subconscious culminating in the lyrics, “I love you, but I’m afraid to love you.”
Anyone who has the briefest familiarity with Jeff Buckley will know about his cover version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. This cover is probably the emotion highpoint of the release. What an ultimate fantasy pairing, Leonard Cohen’s brilliant lyrics and Buckley’s scintillating vocal interpretation. Simply distilled this is utter perfection. This song never ceases to stun and arrest those who encounter it. It displayed what an impact Buckley could make with the power of his vocals and his effortless command. It is also a point where the regret seeps in for what music lost both with Buckley’s untimely passing and Cohen’s death last year. That this moment exists on a recording can only elicit the comment, hallelujah indeed.
Lover You Should Have Come Over is a dramatic rock ballad that again showed the many facets of Buckley’s skills. The lyrics alone are engaging as he paints this yearning picture of a desire for a lover. It is infused with real-world observations and the desire for a love that endures. I highly recommend a read through of the song’s lyrics as prose. Lifting this song to a higher level is once again Buckley’s sensitive and apt interpretation with his vocals laying bare the emotions of the song. With the performance, he produces a timeless classic that stands out when compared to the Britpop/Grunge environment it was created within.
The goosebump-inducing cover of the classic Corpus Christi Carol is haunting and gorgeous. Upon hearing it again after a long time I am astonished at how much of Sufjan Stevens’ vocal approach is found in this song. It is again a brilliant cover with much to love. Eternal Life is a corker of a track with a clamorous guitar and bluesy influence manifest throughout. Buckley once again changes approach with an aggressive in your face track about death racism and fate. Condemned is the road to hell that is paved with intentions that will only damn the traveller on life’s path. One of the underlying themes also captured in the track was Buckley’s push me/ pull me relationship with his father’s legacy. The song is a burst of gritty goodness and delivers satisfaction.
Dream Brother the closer of the album is as strong as any of the other tracks. Again like on “Lover” the lyrics are astonishing in their narrative beauty and when added to his breathtaking vocals makes for something almost otherworldly. The song builds drama and explodes making it unforgettable and in hindsight utterly heartbreaking to think that it was his last recorded statement of intent.
It can be hard to see the forest for the trees when examining the legacy of Jeff Buckley. It is undeniable that he held so much promise and had with one album shown more skill and ability than many who had more time. I have been asked many times on social media who in the music world I would bring back, I immediately say Jeff Buckley. He deserved more time to make his mark. Oh what could have been, the mind boggles. When pondering the imponderable of his untimely death I am always reminded of the A.E. Houseman poem, To An Athlete Dying Young, for it could have been written for Buckley as I paraphrase, he has not swelled the route of lads who wore their honors out, runners who renown outran the name died out before the man. Buckley’s enduring legacy is the singular impact of his immediate impressive accomplishments on Grace and the everlasting quandary of what could have been.