Classic Rock Review

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Jeff Buckley Grace (1995)


When Jeff Buckley, son of multi-faceted rock artist Tim Buckley, released his first full-length studio LP, Grace, the music world got their first taste of the smooth, melancholic sounds that Buckley would forever be remembered.

Grace offers its listeners ten songs tinged with aching beauty and down-to-earth cynicism. The instrumentation itself isn’t spectacular. The guitars, which alternate between bright clean tones and crunchy, Zeppelin-rock, have a pretty solid, but typical, rock feel to them. Also often present is an acoustic guitar which layers the rest of the music with rhythmic strumming.

What stands out about Grace and makes it a staple in rock music history is Buckley’s uncanny, natural vocal ability. In addition to his uncommonly vast range, Buckley’s voice can take on many different characters. Buckley constantly displays the many sides of his buttery tenor. Whether he is belting out rock anthems (“Eternal Life”), crooning sensual ballads (“Last Goodbye”), or utilizing his eerie, flawless falsetto (“Corpus Christi Carol”), Buckley engages the listener completely.

Grace brings forth a sound that takes aspects from multiple genres and integrates them into one tangible masterpiece. From the soothing vibrato of his father, Tim Buckley, to the lingering phrasing of Robert Plant, Buckley’s voice can be seen as a melting pot of talent. The product of the different inspirations is a powerful and ethereal sound that escapes Buckley’s lips in a haunting tone.

With nearly a third of the songs on Grace being covers, it is easy to point the finger at Buckley for having such a high number of songs (three) not written by him. After listening to the songs, however, it is impossible to associate Buckley with being unoriginal or uncreative. While he may not have written the words or root melodies, Buckley takes the songs, “Lilac Wine”, “Corpus Christi Carol”, and “Hallelujah” and transcends them beyond their original versions.

If someone were to listen to Grace and was asked to discern which three songs weren’t originally written by Buckley, it would be very difficult, perhaps with the exception of “Corpus Christi Carol,” a multi-century old English hymn. Any points lost for the covers can’t be taken off with too much venom, due to the sheer, raw conviction with which Buckley sings them.

Indeed, Grace has track after track that compels the listener to fall in love with Buckley’s vulnerable delivery of depressing lyrics. The words Buckley utters are achingly relatable, yet transcendent. Much like his distinct, awe-inducing voice, his lyrics don’t seem like they come from an average human being. In “Eternal Life” Buckley belts with confidence, “And as your fantasies are broken in two. Did you really think this bloody road would pave the way for you?” It isn’t hard to draw meaning out of what he’s saying. Buckley isn’t some vague poet. Instead, the scenarios he paints with his voice and words make him seem like a road-worn traveler with a broken heart.

Along with the reverberating clean guitars producing ambient background sounds and ringing out minor chords, Buckley’s vocal components project a feeling of mystery. In a recording era right before the digital age of the 21st century, where analog recording was still the primary means of recording. Grace doesn’t fall victim to any of the sloppiness that can result from pure analog recording. The record’s production is crisp, from the subtle buzzing of the bass to the acute shrill of Buckley’s falsetto. The atmospheric sounds from tremolo picking and using slides on guitars fill the emptiness that would have been pressing if left alone. Between the tight production and beautiful melodies, Grace is an album that will forever stimulate the hearts of listeners.

The first thing that must be mentioned when talking about Jeff Buckley is his sweet, irresistible tone that many try to replicate. Buckley’s influential and impressive contrast of delicate and powerhouse vocals can be seen in artists like Thom Yorke (Radiohead) and Matt Bellamy (Muse).

In a showcase of his truly unique voice, Grace’s title track, “Grace” lays out his whole spectrum of vocal ability. He begins the song by singing in a quivering voice, “There’s the moon asking to stay. Long enough for the clouds to fly me away,” but by the time the bridge rolls around he cries out, “Wait in the fire. Wait in the fire” over and over, while jumping from falsetto to his chest voice, which is nearly as high in pitch. “Grace” maintains some song structure, but eventually gives way into a jam session of sorts for Buckley to skillfully throw his voice all over the place.

The song that generated the most talk for Buckley, and arguably propelled him into the fame he received, was his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Originally released a decade before Grace, “Hallelujah” deserves every beam of spotlight that it received.

Buckley, following John Cale’s arrangement of the song, took Cohen’s dark and nearly spoken tune and transformed it into one of the greatest covers of all time. From the exhale of breath at the opening to the drawn out falsetto at the end, the song seizes the ear and emotion of the listener. Buckley mutters the verses with delicacy, lingering here and there. As he sings, he subtly slips into a heart wrenching falsetto. Beauty permeates throughout the entire song. In the last verse, as the guitar nears the end of its progression, Buckley’s voice crescendos and then backs off as he coos “hallelujah” a few times.

Then, just as you’re entranced by the softness created, Buckley lets out a resounding “hallelujah” that pierces the fragile atmosphere. Buckley may not have written the words, but it would be very difficult to say that he didn’t make “Hallelujah” as ardent and original as any other track on the album.

All of this isn’t to detract from Buckley’s other songs on the album that he personally wrote. “Last Goodbye” is a sexy love song, complete with soaring strings and floating vocals that bounce everywhere.

Other highlights include, “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” a similarly moving ballad, but with heavier words. Lyrically, it’s one of the best on the album. The mournful tune has Buckley reflecting on the past, and looking bleakly to the future. You can hear the desperation for hope as he sings, “Too young to hold on. And too old to just break free and run.”

Then there is “Eternal Life,” easily the heaviest song on the album. Sounding like a hybrid from 70s and 80s rock anthems, Buckley spits with a seldom-seen aggression, “All I want to do is love everyone.”

Although it is clear in hindsight how great an album Grace is, its success wasn’t immediate. While it did get to #05 on Billboard’s Heatseekers, in the Billboard 200 it couldn’t get past 149. The aforementioned song, “Last Goodbye,” reached 19 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart.

It wasn’t until after Buckley’s untimely death in May of 1997 that Grace accumulated major accolades.

In 2003, Rolling Stone had Grace as #303 on its “500 Greatest Albums” list. Even in 2008, Buckley’s music is surviving. After re-exposure to “Hallelujah” from a contestant performing it on The X-Factor, Buckley’s version climbed its way up to the #01 spot of Billboard’s digital downloads. Buckley may not be around to create any more sadness-filled rock wonders, but Grace will continue to inspire and evoke the deepest emotions from its listeners.

Next Steps
In the years that followed Grace‘s release, Buckley toured extensively throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia and Japan, as well as some low-key solo shows.

On May 29, 1997, Buckley tragically drowned in Memphis, TN. Although he had sporadically been recording, his sudden death snubbed any hopes of a second full-length studio LP. Prior to Grace, Buckley had released Live at Sin-é, a live EP of him and his guitar performing four songs, including two that made it onto Grace, a Van Morrison cover, and a song sung partially in French. Buckley’s death didn’t bring an end to his music, however.

In 2003 Columbia Records put out an expanded version of Live at Sin-é, entitled Live at Sin-é: Legacy Edition, which boasted 34 tracks. In 1998, Sketches for My Sweetheart The Drunk, an album containing much of his recorded material between Grace and his death, was released. In addition to the incomplete record, live albums, compilations with rarities, and documentaries began to surface as time passed. The most recent, a package that includes studio songs, live performances and a film chronicling Buckley’s career, boasts over three hours of content.

Buckley was a heavyhearted artist that expressed his qualms through melodic, soothing rock. Grace was an outstanding record that was brimming with potential. The poignant songs set Buckley up to be not only a sex symbol of the late 20th century, but also a prominent figure in the ultra-sensitive rock scene.

Like many artists before him, including his father, Buckley’s premature death deprived the world from the plethora of possibilities that could have been produced. Buckley won’t be forgotten, though. His creeping tone lives on in many alternative artists today. In Radiohead’s single “Fake Plastic Trees,” which they recorded after seeing him performing in London, you can hear Buckley’s creepy timbre in Thom Yorke’s voice.

Buckley’s unmistakable voice, which Rolling Stone ranked as being #39 of “The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time” (released in 2008), will continually sought to be simulated. The respect and admiration that has been built around Grace and Buckley’s soulful vocals doesn’t seem like it will ever cease to exist.

January 7, 2014 - Posted by | Jeff Buckley Grace |

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