Sunday, August 24, 2014

Grace and danger: the Jeff Buckley legacy

You all know about the 27 Club, right? Influential musicians like Hendrix, Morrison, Winehouse, Cobain, Drake and Joplin, who all died at the age of 27. Cut down in their prime by, mostly, rock-and-roll misadventure, only to emerge from death even more greater influence than they applied in life.

Jeff Buckley was 30 when he died in 1997, accidentally drowning, apparently, while swimming fully clothed in a Memphis tributary of the Mississippi. Aside from being older, he differed for the 27 Club by the fact that he had only released one studio album at the time he died.

That album was Grace, which was released 20 years ago yesterday. It is a landmark album, but for all the muso acclaim it has garnered, just one of its songs will ensure Buckley is forever regarded amongst the greatest artists of all time. Incredible. One song. And he didn’t even write it.

The song is Hallelujah. It was written and originally recorded in 1985 by Leonard Cohen, an obscurity on the second side of his Various Positions album. In 1991, the Velvet Underground's John Cale recorded it for a Cohen tribute, stripping it down from the synth-heavy original. In 1992, Buckley was cat-sitting for a friend in Brooklyn and happened to discover the tribute album, coming across the "ode to life and love" that he considered Hallelujah.

His own recording would become a love letter to Cohen, taking the Cale cover and infusing it with an extraordinary soul and emotional heft. Even now, the countless wannabes who choose it as their bid on trashy Saturday night TV talent shows will refer to it as Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah (mind you, there are also those who refer to it as "that song from Shrek"), such was the distinction that effectively made the song his own, and staple of weddings, funerals and break-up mix tapes.

Grace is more than just one song, of course, but that song continues to carry the torch of legacy for the album itself, an album Bowie himself once said was one of the ten albums he'd take to a desert island, an album that has been compared, favourably, to Radiohead's OK Computer (Thom Yorke is said to have been so impacted by seeing Buckley perform in Highbury that he went straight into a studio to record the vocals to Fake Plastic Trees).

Grace's influence can be heard in the careers of Elbow, Coldplay, Keane, Bon Iver, Rufus Wainwright (another Hallelujah coveree), Muse, Arcade Fire and even Jamie Cullum, who covered Lover, You Should Come Over. The irony of all this is that Grace was, initially, something of a commercial flop, only getting as high as 149 in the Billboard chart in the US. Even some reviews were mixed, some noting that in the-then era of grunge, such a disjointed album of styles was indicative of a career debut lacking focus.

It's appreciation since tells a different story. By the end of 1994 it had been named Best Album of the year by Mojo, 9th out of 1994's Top 50 in Melody Maker, and featured prominently in the annual album charts of countless other music magazines. With the benefit of history, Grace has appeared even higher in 'best of' lists,  including Rolling Stone's The Essential Alternative Recordings of the 90s and No.33 in the NME's 100 Best Albums Ever poll, even beating Oasis' (What's The Story) Morning Glory and Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures. It has even been chosen for preservation by the US Library of Congress.

Jeff Buckley had music in his veins from the start. He also had the heart-wrenched platform to write an album like Grace, too. Born in Anaheim, California - home to Disneyland - on November 17, 1966. In principle, his earliest years should have been surrounded by music, courtesy of Buckley's father, the acclaimed singer-songwriter, Tim Buckley. However, Buckley senior walked out on his six-month-old son and mother when Jeff was still a baby. He died of a drug overdose when Jeff was just nine.  "I knew him for nine days," the younger Buckley would later tell music journalist Ted Kessler. "I met him for the first time when I was eight-years-old over Easter and he died two months later."

In the same interview with Kessler, Buckley said of himself and his father: "We were born with the same parts but when I sing, it's me. This is my own time." Grace clearly was, but behind the variety of songs - a range spanning pop, alt-rock and even chilled-out lounge - sits a bedrock of deep emotion. It is perhaps too easy and tempting to read into songs like Last Goodbye and that much-covered paean to narcotic bliss, Lilac Wine.

But there was clearly something about Grace that suggested a musician full of untethered potential and promise. He was already working on that difficult second album when died. Those who doubt the reverence to which Jeff Buckley has been awarded in the 17 years since his death and the 20 years since Grace appeared see him as a mere interpreter of others' styles. And on the limited evidence alone - just the one studio album - it's possible to see where this perspective come from.

However, the paradox is that there is both commonality and variety at work - Buckley's remarkable vocal range and timbre throughout, and his ability to adapt his guitar playing to enhance the emotion each song on Grace was trying to convey.

One can only wonder what that second album would have given us and, indeed, the last 20-years. We shall never know, of course, but that should not and does not diminish the singular impact of an album that rightfully takes prominent place in record collections as the sole legacy of career that tragically never came to be.


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  2. Undeniably one of the greatest, *THEE!* ahem, sorry. With only one album..

    And a smorgasbord of covers, all brilliant in their own right. A great tragedy. JB4L