On August 23, fans of singer and guitarist Jeff Buckley were given a massive treat. Those in charge of the artist’s estate have offered up a slew of previously unavailable live recordings and demos to commemorate the 25th anniversary of “Grace,” Buckley’s sole studio release before his untimely death.
This newly released material, along with the publication of a 300-page collection of Buckley’s journals, letters, notes and unrecorded lyrics that will be available this fall, serves as an invaluable record of the maturation and magnetism of an artist who was gone far too soon.
It’s disappointing, then, that the name Jeff Buckley means so little to so many young listeners. At best, he’s remembered as the guy who sings the song in “Shrek,” which unfortunately isn’t even true — it’s Rufus Wainwright’s 2001 version of “Hallelujah” that appears on the film’s soundtrack. More often, his name is received with blank stares. For a culture so enamored with dead rock stars, Buckley remains a frustratingly underrated figure.
The son of musical parents, Buckley’s own gifts were hardly surprising. His mother, Mary Guibert, was classically trained, and his father, Tim Buckley, was a successful and incredibly talented folk musician. But while the elder Buckley might have provided a rich genetic inheritance for his son, he didn’t offer much else, meeting Jeff only a single time before dying of a heroin overdose in 1975.
The younger Buckley began playing guitar at an early age and went on to attend the Los Angeles Musicians Institute and play in several local bands but didn’t begin drawing much attention until a move to New York. Thanks to a powerful performance at a tribute concert to his father and an extended residency at the East Village cafe Sin-é, Buckley began attracting a following.
This buzz culminated in Buckley landing a record deal with Columbia, and in the fall of 1994, he entered the studio with a freshly auditioned band to record his debut. “Grace” was an eclectic and ambitious album, completely at odds with the musical landscape surrounding it.
Grunge had been the defining sound of American rock for the last three years, but Buckley’s music was jazzy, theatrical and romantic. He covered Nina Simone, Leonard Cohen and the composer Benjamin Britton, and sang in a pure tenor that had more in common with Edith Piaf than Kurt Cobain.
In fact, it’s difficult to link “Grace” to any particular genre, as the album so relentlessly shuffles through the many styles that interested Buckley. The record brings together smoldering torch songs, opera, crunchy ’90s rock and somber ballads, in a combination that sounds somewhat disastrous on paper. But these diverse sounds were held together by Buckley’s staggering ability, which is something of a musical idiom unto itself.
Most immediately striking is the voice. It’s been estimated that Buckley had a four-octave range: For a little context, that’s the same as singers like Ariana Grande and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Both ends of this range can be heard on “Grace,” with Buckley’s crystal clear, feathery falsetto floating through Britton’s “Corpus Christi Carol,” and his dusky baritone powering Simone’s “Lilac Wine.”
Buckley had a lot of voice, and he loved to use it. The melodies on the album are adventurous, filled with embellishments and endless sustains that cause one to wonder what his limits as a vocalist actually were.
It’s worth noting that the two songs mentioned in the previous paragraph are covers. Buckley knew an impressive repertoire of other’s work, spanning genres and decades, and it’s unsurprising that a few covers found their way onto his studio debut. But these songs were more than tributes to some favorite artists.
Buckley was a masterful interpreter and had a singular talent for possessing someone else’s song so completely that it nearly became his own. It’s no accident that the track Buckley is most strongly associated with today is his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which is widely regarded as the definitive version of the song.
Considering how much of others’ material is incorporated in “Grace,” it’s incredible that the album remains so cohesive. Buckley’s prowess plays an important role in uniting such varyingly different styles of music, but each track is also invested with a common energy and spirit. “Grace” is defined by its abundance, which helps it jump over the hurdles that would trip up a lesser album: not just an abundance of talent, but of passionate, unchecked emotion.
Buckley was a maximalist, both musically and personally — the recording of “Grace” was halted for two days because he was so hurt by a review of his live EP that unfavorably compared him to Michael Bolton. He experienced things unreservedly and channeled this experience into his work. There’s a degree of surrender and emotional abandon in “Grace” that allows Buckley to be totally present, experiencing the song along with his audience. At its core, the album is earnest, and this quality allows the whole thing to hang together.
— Jeff Buckley Music (@JeffBuckley) August 26, 2019
After a lukewarm reception upon its release, “Grace” steadily began gaining steam, receiving praise from critics, fans and the music community. By early 1997, Buckley was preparing to enter a Memphis studio to begin recording his much-anticipated second album, “My Sweetheart the Drunk.”
The day before recording was to begin, Buckley and a friend were sitting beside the Mississippi River when the musician decided to go for a spontaneous swim. The friend got up to move the radio the pair had been listening to, and when he returned Buckley had vanished. Sucked down in the wake of a passing boat, his body wouldn’t be recovered for six days. Drugs and alcohol hadn’t been involved, and it was concluded that the event had been a tragic accident.
It’s painful to think of what Buckley could have gone on to musically. For many, an album like “Grace” would have been the pinnacle of an impressive career, and it’s mind-boggling to remember that the record was his debut. Demos of many songs intended for “My Sweetheart the Drunk” have been made available, but these recordings offer only a glimpse of what was to come.
Fans have no choice but to cherish what there is, and “Grace” is the most complete, refined music Buckley ever recorded. Twenty-five years later, the album has doubtlessly withstood the test of time, and deserves the appreciation of another generation of listeners. So, if Buckley’s name is only a vague memory from a DreamWorks movie or your parents’ record collection, look him up. There’s unfortunately little to find, but all of it is worth a listen.