25 Masterworks: Jeff Buckley – Grace
My Spin on Masterworks: 16 of 25
In theory, complete and utter sincerity should seem desirable. Instead, it’s an uncomfortable proposition to shoulder, especially for poets and songwriters. When feelings are presented at their most naked, there’s nothing to hide behind: nothing artificial to lean into, no irony to break the tension. Heart-on-sleeve writing can be courageous purely in its existence, but it can all-too-easily collapse into the polar pitfalls of being either overly basic or overly elaborate. The words are expected to retain the intensity of original feeling without simply resembling slapdash stream-of-consciousness. Braving such territory in sung verse can be even more intimidating: everything hinges not only on the words themselves, but in the delivery thereof. Huge, heartfelt ballads are generally associated with ostentatious bluster, but at their core, they represent a tremendous gamble: with all chips on the table, every single line or couplet must hold its place in the chain, lest the whole thing break into pieces. If the material fails to convince at any point, the artist’s emotional integrity appears compromised; a disastrous result that stings all the more for the highly personal nature of the piece.
Partway through St. Vincent’s headline performance at Green Man Festival in 2015, Annie Clark gave a lengthy (and occasionally bewildering) speech, into which she smuggled the observation that “it’s so much braver to admit that you love something than to say that you hate it”. While the rest of her words are largely gone from memory (except for a hilarious gaff about Greggs “steak burgers”), that particular truism has continued to percolate in my mind. Transparent expressions of love put one in a vulnerable position. When it’s clear that you hold something dear, it can be hurtful for somebody else to refute it (and by extension, yourself). This applies when defending somebody else, and doubly so when standing by your own thoughts or creations.
Listening to his sole completed album, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Jeff Buckley couldn’t possibly have suffered from such concerns: throughout Grace, Buckley sings from the depths of his soul without so much as a flicker of self-doubt. Grace is not a record that sounds fragile (at least not in the same sense as For Emma, Forever Ago and its peers) but it is uncommonly intimate, the words poured straight from the heart with no discernible filter of irony or pretense. Even when revisiting past treasures such as ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ or Nina Simone’s ‘Lilac Wine’, Buckley fills their compositional vessels with an emotional charge that is entirely his own; his fervent croon making their well-worn sentiments new again. In no small part, this is down to his astonishing voice, blessed as he was with the kind of swooping range that so many troubadours dream of. Equally, by the time of Grace, Buckley had developed a precise control over his vocals, his fiery caterwauling tempered by finesse and timing. His feelings may sound raw, but his style was far from unpolished.
As is often the case for the reception of so many heart-on-sleeve songwriters (especially those with a taste for the theatrical), there are plenty of listeners who are turned off by Buckley’s style, but that’s not for his work’s lack of sincerity. Grace is an album so thoroughly open-chested that it is worthy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the output of artists Buckley himself worshipped – Simone, Édith Piaf, Billie Holiday – as a work of pre-eminent emotional intensity. Its ten songs are sharply drawn from defiance, angst, and soul-baring declarations of love which verge on hallowing. Even listening to the album’s best-known song – the oft-celebrated cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ (which Buckley was actually drawn to after hearing John Cale’s own rendition) – proves a staggeringly intimate experience. Buckley and producer Andy Wallace present the song as unhurried, hushed, and spacious, with its few details rendered finely. The notes of Buckley’s guitar flicker like candles in the dark, his voice ascending from a dusty stool to scrape cathedral-sized heights. The emotion driving the song can be heard through every breath, and it never once sounds affected or disingenuous.
In his own songs, Buckley pulls off even the most impossible of sentiments thanks to the very same sincerity. “I never stepped on the cracks ’cause I thought I’d hurt my mother,” he sighs during ‘So Real’ – the kind of lyric that would attract adjectives such as “drippy” were it not for Buckley’s sheer commitment to the part. On the opus ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’, he builds from “my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder” to “she’s the tear that hangs inside my soul forever”, without faltering once. Around these peaks and valleys of romantic ruin, Grace’s edges are darkened like singed parchment paper. The “white horses” of ‘Mojo Pin’ are a torch-song cousin to Elliott Smith’s ‘Needle in the Hay’ of the following year, whereas ‘Dream Brother’ is a warning in the face of a friend’s temptation to self-destruct.
Buckley naturally holds the spotlight throughout Grace, but his bandmates are pushed to miracles in their attempts to match him, and sweet Jesus, the sound is just blissful. Listening to ‘Last Goodbye’ is like sending your ears on a four-and-a-half minute trip to Heaven. His subject matter is as old as time, but Buckley wrings fresh pain from an end-of-the-line dialogue with cut-glass phrases, while surrounded by tiny musical gracenotes. “This is our last embrace,” he asserts, and one of Karl Berger’s most gorgeous string melodies sails in to dovetail with the impossibly sharp pang, Buckley’s stretching ever so slightly to ask “must I dream and always see your face?” It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, so tiny in the breadth of the full album, but the effect is matched time and time again. ‘Grace’ itself shifts from jangly beauty to an explosive kick against the eventual dying of the light; a notion that would of course prove to be devastatingly timely. And yet it transcends its context and still sounds spirited and full of promise two decades after Buckley’s death: the performances are full of vim and gusto, and that hair-raising crescendo is a potent demonstration of the electricity preserved in the fibres of the album.
It’s dispiriting that to this day, the vaults are still being pilfered by music executives hoping to squeeze more lucrative posthumous releases from Buckley’s slim catalogue of work. This year’s You & I is a disheartening example of offcuts and demos cobbled together for the sake of capital at the cost of mystique. While arguably valid as insights into Buckley’s creative trajectory, many of the works dredged up following his death (aside from the more rounded productions lining Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk) show the artist at his most inconsistent, before he was able to fully realise the power of each recording. As such, Buckley’s less successful (and occasionally risky) endeavours have been canonised, at the risk of tarnishing his legacy.
And yet in spite of these blemishes, Buckley’s artistic immortality was confirmed long ago, thanks to the transcendence of what was completed on his own terms. Grace is certainly a tragic reminder of a talent lost too soon, but it carries within it so much life and fire, its emotions articulated with piercing sincerity that time has sharpened rather than blunted. In the span of its fifty minutes, not a single note rings false.
Posted on October 6, 2016, in 25 Masterworks and tagged 1994, 25 Masterworks, Columbia, Eternal Life, Grace, Hallelujah, Jeff Buckley, Last Goodbye, Radiohead, Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, Tim Buckley. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.