By: Jack Stein
The following is the first installment in a purported series, wherein the writers of jjmt look back fondly at some records/songs/artists that existed long before the dawn of this blog. Also, we get to prove that we listen to music outside the oh-so-hip confines of “indie”/”chillwave”/etc. etc. Enjoy.
* * *
Allow me to preface this by stating that nothing Jeff Buckley ever recorded stands within the confines of what is considered “cool” by modern hypercritical and self-conscious standards. This is the juncture where you either commit or flee for the greener pastures of more apropos music bloggery.
Buckley was probably the first notable “post-grunge” artist, injecting the testosterone-infused guitar crunch and theatrical howling of Soundgarden/Pearl Jam/et al. with some much-needed sensitivity. It’s like the early 90’s Seattle scene – personified – popped a few Ambien but accidentally drank too way much wine and was left ruing romances gone by rather than thrashing against Black Hole Suns.
It’s a fascinating Frankenstein, to be sure, and one that admittedly sounds a bit dated upon first listen. However, once you get past the oh-so-90s melodramatics and carnal six-string riffs, one is faced with arguably the most haunting songwriting talent of the decade, right up there with Elliott Smith in terms of solipsistic beauty.
Grace, like much of Buckley’s brief discography, teems with sensuality, spirituality, and romantic longing. The song titles themselves (“Last Goodbye”, “Lover, You Should Have Come Over”) reek of the L-word, finely toeing the line between sincerity and mawkish banality. The lyrics themselves are often no more than repeated phrases that desperately express said longing. I swear I have seen some of this stuff written on confiscated notes from a handful of my hormonally anguished teenage students.
But Lord, that VOICE. In an age where vocal talent matters less than an artist’s penchant for twiddling knobs, it should be noted that Buckley possessed some of the most range-challenging, powerfully emotive pipes in modern music. He often veers from seductive, post-coital whispers to gentle crooning to bat-out-of-hell belting within the same stanza (the coda to the masterful title track “Grace” is an exemplar of this.) It’s pretty cliche to even type this, but Buckley’s voice was truly another instrument; often times, it sounds as if the guitars are haggardly catching their breath trying to keep up with his oscillating vocal fury.
“Well, Adele can sing too,” you quip. You’re right. Buckley’s lasting legacy, the reason that he influenced everyone from Radiohead (Thom Yorke is a professed fan) to Nickelback (…), was his virtuosic ability to build a mood. Every one of the ten mostly sublime tracks on Grace swims in a sort of post-sundown, opaquely seductive haze. Listening to Grace in the twilight is an experience in itself; the heart-on-sleeve dynamics and lovelorn atmosphere of this CD (CD!) soundtracked many a late-night drive to my high school girlfriend’s house. Writers are allowed to be solipsistic, too. Let’s move on.
I made it this far without mentioning the two primary reasons that you probably are aware of this Jeff Buckley fellow. First, his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, which, despite being beaten to death on every TV melodrama of the last decade, remains one of the most quietly devastating pieces of music I have ever heard. While Cohen’s more gospel-indebted original is pretty great in its own right, Buckley used his own dark romanticism to create another beast entirely. The opening guitar chords are things of hymnal beauty, and when that Voice comes in things become downright angelic. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs or opinions on the afterlife, I definitely imagine this playing if we ascend/descend to some other realm after this one.
Second, Buckley drowned just three years after Grace was released. The mystery that shrouds his demise is similar to that which surrounds those of Cobain, Elliott Smith, and all the rest. So much of the frequently vapid analysis of Buckley’s career usually begins and ends right there: guy made beautiful, hymnal music, and then he died. Linking the two matters is, at best, ill advised. Just as no one reads Hemingway or David Foster Wallace looking for “hints” that they were going to kill themselves, no one should gleefully parse Buckley’s gorgeous canon hunting for foreshadowing. Doing so simply compromises the crystalline beauty of this music.
If we avoid this ambulance-chasing morbidity, we arrive at one simple conclusion. Jeff Buckley was a precocious talent, both technically and artistically, who made some of the most purely gorgeous music of his era. Listen to Grace as you would admire a sunset, a mountain range, or some other feat of natural beauty. Let it exist, on its own merits, to be admired in the unpretentious way that it deserves.