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.
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.
I first heard of Jeff Buckley via a friend who was attending NYU in the early ’90s, the same girl who turned me on to the Velvets, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and basically anything else that oozed smoky, black-clad cool. She would send me cassettes with photocopied covers, one every couple of months. A Richard Hell bootleg here, a Modern Lovers rarity there. Great stuff, but all of it belonged to a bygone era, a time that we missed by being born a decade too late, a world that would only exist via scratchy hand-me-down vinyl and rock crit tomes. But then one month she sent me a cassette of a live radio recording from WNYU featuring a young kid playing a handful of originals, in addition to an eclectic array of covers—everything from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing” (played on harmonium, no less). The kid’s taste was impeccable, but the obvious center of attention was that voice, a breathtaking instrument that could transform itself from melodious coo to strangled yelp to guttural howl as if it were negotiating some unseen hairpin turns in the air.
That tape would occupy a special place in my collection—not only did it contain within its fragile shell the sweet whiff of discovery, it was also a shining, beautiful moment plucked from the here and now. This lad, Jeff Buckley, son of folk-rock icon Tim Buckley, seemed to pledge no allegiance to the flannel-clad Nirvana wannabes of the day. Not only could the dude sing, he was also, according to my tape-making friend who’d now begun camping out at local club/closet Sin-é for his performances, “hot as fuck.” He was, for all we knew, a Man Out of Time, a creature who could probably sing you an Arthurian madrigal or some such shit back to back with “Pale Blue Eyes.” A Man Out of Time. Little did we know the imminent double meaning of that phrase.
Fast forward a couple of years to 1994, and the release of Buckley’s full-length debut album Grace. My friend and I are now part of a larger fanbase, many of whom had been turned on to Jeff via the Live At Sin-é EP. For those of us expecting to hear that voice floating on more gossamer light musings, it’s apparent with the album cover that Buckley is becoming a different beast, or at least tapping into other elements of his character. The evolution is hammered home with the opening track: The first few seconds of “Mojo Pin” are feathery and faint—that is until the second chorus lets the band (Buckley, bassist Mick Grondahl, drummer Matt Johnson, and, on that track, guest guitarist and old friend Gary Lucas) pound the hell out of it with Zeppelinesque fury and finesse. Quite an opening, and indeed quite a statement of intent. It’s as if Jeff is saying, “You’ve heard one side of me—now you’re going to get it all.” And over the course of 10 songs, we more or less do.
We hear in the title track the sheer scope of Buckley’s range, married to one of the album’s better melodies, and a subdued, sympathetic performance from the band. With “Last Goodbye” and “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over,” two of the album’s highlights, we get bittersweet ruminations of love lost drenched in sweet romantic melancholy, suggesting an old soul hiding within well-worn jeans and a leather jacket. And then there are the covers: his hauntingly reverent take on “Lilac Wine”; the spectacular guitar-and-voice treatment of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in which Buckley warbles, coos, and whispers the words of the bard with all the tenderness and fragility of a first kiss. There’s his version of the “Corpus Christi Carol,” recorded at the insistence of producer Andy Wallace, a man renowned for getting some of the heaviest sounds known to man in the studio, but who can recognize an otherworldly performance when he hears it. And there are many such performances on Grace. Sinuous and smooth, sharp and serrated, Grace is possibly the most sensuous album to have emerged in the aftermath of grunge, without doubt the least sexy of all musical sub-genres.
But Grace, like its creator, is imperfect. Some of the lyrics resemble art college bathroom stall scrawling (“What is life?/What is happiness?/Where is peace?”), and, as with many singer-songwriters who possess truly outstanding pipes, there are times when the gift overtakes the song. Still, the only true misstep is “So Real,” a track so slight it resembles an afterthought, complete with mumbled verses and a noisy, atonal middle-eight. But by the time the ethereal “Dream Brother” stretches languidly into silence, all is forgiven. With an eerie couplet as a sign-off (“Asleep in the sand/With the ocean washing over”), Grace comes to a close, a perplexing, occasionally frustrating, but ultimately rewarding deeper glimpse into a singular talent.
As fate would have it, Buckley’s life would echo that ghostly last couplet from “Dream Brother,” and the young man who seemed to have it all would drown in a tributary of the Mississippi, with the true follow-up to Grace never to come. One could drift into all sorts of flowery nonsense here, and indeed many have—about how the promise that Jeff carried might’ve proved to be an albatross, dragging him down to an untimely end, much as it did his father. Perhaps the angelic beauty of his gift prompts people to wax rhapsodic and think of such heady notions as “fate” and “destiny.” Truth be told, it’s tempting to end this review with such a tone, because when Jeff died, it was important. It was a huge loss. But in the end I can’t help but think that if he were here, he’d be telling us all to lighten up a bit. Maybe it’s that back tray photo, with Buckley looking like a cross between Paul Westerberg and Dean Martin. Maybe it’s the wise-cracking on that old tape. Or maybe it’s just the sting of the hard truth: A promise, no matter how enticing, is seldom kept forever.
Most great musicians’ children suck. Well, maybe not suck but they certainly never reach anywhere near the success or greatness their parents held. Bob Dylan, one of the key revolutionary forces in music in the 60s and 70s had a song involved with music. Anyone remember the Wall Flowers? Yeah, didn’t think so. What did we get from the son of Bob Dylan; bland modern rock, when we all were probably hoping for so much more. Where is drum master John Bonham’s son? Well, let’s just say the best thing he can do is go on Vh1’s reality television show ‘Supergroup’ and try to make some money off of his name.
Certainly not all great musicians’ children are horrible in their pursuits, Ravi Coltrane has made a good name for himself among the jazz circuit, but the fact is most of these musicians make a living/career off of their parents’ success. Enter Tim Buckley, jazz and avant garde singer/song writer who was known for his immense vocal talents. Tim Buckley’s range and use of voice in his work is something that was rarely seen especially on his release ‘Lorca’. Tim Buckley died at the age of 28 (of an apparent OD) but not before having a special little child named Jeff.
Jeff Buckley is probably one of the most interesting and talented musicians to come out of the 90s. With his ridiculous vocal range of three and a half octaves, and his lush music production Buckley’s record ‘Grace’ was released to critical acclaim and garners high respect from artists such as Thom Yorke and Matt Bellamy (of Radiohead and Muse respectively.) While ‘Grace’ isn’t an extraordinarily original album, it does have a special spot in most alternative music fan’s hearts. Buckley’s fondness of making original covers translates itself over to his only fully realized LP in the form of ‘Lilac Wine’, ‘Hallelujah’, and ‘Corpus Christi Carol’. Some listeners do complain about the excessive amount of covers on this album since they technically make up almost one third of the album.
Yet, Buckley like Johnny Cash possesses the ability to turn cover songs into songs that are all his own, which helps these covers blend in perfectly with the rest of the album’s sound. Speaking of the album’s sound, it has a very solemn, jazzy feel that is brought some brightness in the form of Buckley’s vocal melodies. Due to amount of range Jeff possesses he is able to single handedly change the mood, or evoke some otherwise unseen emotion, in the various points of his songs. The effect of this is seen excellently on the track ‘So Real’ where he begins the song with some quiet singing and then during the chorus he extends himself into a melody that would trip most vocal chords of the average rock singer. Throughout the song his constant change of singing, to all out bawling, to quiet talking makes the mood of the listener swing with the hymns of Buckley. The instrumentation on the track and throughout the song is also superb and helps create the perfect backdrop for Buckley’s vocal expertise.
Although for the most part, every song on ‘Grace’ is extremely well done the album does have its flaws. For one the actual track ordering of the album is very poor in my opinion. The album starts off with three mildly catchy and poppy songs in the form of ‘Mojo Pin’, ‘Grace’ and ‘Last Goodbye’. While these songs have an airy and somewhat happy feeling to them, the lyrical content shows differently, and they do seem like they are odes to the demons of Buckley. After these three great tracks, the first cover in the form of ‘Lilac Wine’ is placed upon us. ‘Lilac Wine’ in my opinion is the weakest and most useless track on the album and could’ve easily been replaced by a Buckley original. After ‘Lilac Wine’ we have to deal with two very solemn, yet very beautiful tracks. ‘So Real’ and the intensely emotional cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ are two of the albums finest moments, and this is where part of the track listings problem lies. For the good half of the first album (five tracks to be exact) we are given the best Buckley has to offer and it kind of makes the rest of the album suffer in comparsion.
While ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over’ and the rest of the tracks following ‘Hallelujah’ are solid tracks, they have no way in competing with the rest of the album. The other fact that they certainly don’t really shift the solemn feel of the album also makes it get a little monotone towards track seven, ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ which feels like a ‘Hallelujah’ rehash. The ordering does shape itself up after this though, with two heavy songs in the forum of ‘Eternal Life’ and ‘Dream Brother’ these songs switch the depressing mood that has been established, and it helps save the album’s beauty of becoming too repetitious. I think if the label, or Buckley would have spread the more catchy tracks that open the album, throughout the listing, it would’ve made tracks like ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ suffer less from the blandness they suffer due to what seems repetitious.
“Grace’s” real problem lies in its repetitiveness, whether it is in the similar production of every track, or at times even the overbearing ability of Buckley’s voice. These problems don’t hurt the album too much, but I do think they tarnish the reputation the album has in some circles. It certainly is not a perfect album, and I think had Buckley lived past his sadly early demise, he would’ve made a far much more interesting and eclectic album, but regrettably we will never know.
Lyrically, Buckley is a very talented individual. While most of the songs do seem to be centered on the loss of love, or problems with relationships, his flawless imagery and wording really add to the beauty of the album. Instead of falling into the pitfall of criticizing the spouse, like most modern pop-punk bands seem to do, Buckley is able to examine the entire situation of the relationship as well as his problems, and this is made most evident in the song ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’ specifically in the line “Well maybe I’m just too young/To keep good love from going wrong”. Unlike most of his alternative peers, Buckley’s lyrical intensity feels very sincere and honest in comparison to the anger and contempt most bands were releasing during the time of this albums release. Buckley’s utter originality and emotional bareness in lyrical conception is what makes him so successful, and what continues to harness new fans into the strange yet beautiful music he creates.
‘Grace’ is certainly a good album, but how good an album is hard to judge. At times I often find myself craving the album immensely, its production lush, its ever motion complimenting what I’m feeling, but during other times, I find its repetitive nature very annoying and keeping me from enjoying it as much as I could. At many times in my life, I’m sure I could’ve rated this album with a perfect rating, but at this time I feel it has some issues with it that could’ve been easily fixed. The near-horrendous track listing and the similar feel to all the songs excluding ‘Eternal Life’ make it fall to being just a great album. Still, I’m sure many people would enjoy this album immensely so don’t let the non-perfect album rating discourage you from checking ‘Grace’ out.
This album certainly is a beautiful and interesting thing, from one of the only musician’s children to ever do something like it.