How do you write about Jeff Buckley in 2016? When so much water has gone under so many bridges, when so many imitators have drained his legacy, assuming that a sensitive falsetto is the key part of it? How do you even listen to Jeff Buckley in 2016, given all this? It’s nearly 20 years since he dove into the Mississippi and never climbed out.
Jeff Buckley was the first name mentioned at our “I can’t believe we haven’t played this already” meeting a couple of weeks ago, by Tom, but still no one played Grace. I’d thought about Buckley, and ummed and ahhed a bit, but decided not to bring him along to that meeting (everyone would much rather listen to U2, I thought). It then felt kind of obvious to bring him along to the next one, for which there was no set theme. So I did.
I bought Grace on CD in Newton Abbott Our Price (remember Our Price?) shortly after he died in 1997. I’d have been 18, just. It’s one of the few records that I can remember impacting me on first listen. Stupidly, at that age, I wasn’t into solo artists because I had a bizarre notion in my head that they’d all just sing unaccompanied by anything other than an acoustic guitar (for at least the majority of their songs), and therefore be insanely boring. Because otherwise why not just be in a band and have a cool band name? (It’s fair to say that I was quite fixed in many of my ideas about music – and other stuff – when I was younger.) But it was obvious from the first few seconds of “Mojo Pin” – that low hum, the twining guitar, the sashaying drums – that this wasn’t some bozo with an acoustic guitar and nothing else.
Like many people back then I became a little obsessed with Jeff Buckley; I hammered Grace until I’d internalised every vocal and instrumental nuance and climax, bought up old live EPs and CD singles, and waited impatiently for the unreleased songs that would emerge, almost exactly a year after his death, as Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. (But not, it must be said, the ragtag gaggle of hodgepodge compilations that have followed over the years.)
I haven’t really listened to Jeff Buckley much in the last 15 years or so; like many artists I gorged on in days gone by I haven’t felt the need to because of over-familiarity. Also, with Buckley in particular, but with several other late-adolescent favourites, there’s a vague sense of guilt at the emotional indulgence of listening: Grace is a very, very dramatic record, full of heightened emotional states, whooping climaxes, and histrionic expressions that are coupled with very few direct referents and very little clear sense. Which is to say that I have pretty much no idea what most of the songs here are about, but good grief they don’t half make you feel.
A lot of modern ‘crescendo rock’ (read Elbow, The National, Radiohead, Coldplay, Snow Patrol) turns its tricks by repeating and repeating with added elements and intensity. This can be penetratingly affecting, but it can also be deeply dull if the purveyor isn’t incredibly skilful. One of Buckley’s masterstrokes on Grace is his ability to build to enormous, overbearing, wailing crescendos without repeating himself much if at all; “Last Goodbye”, the obvious big single, for instance, manages to get to its destination without really having a proper chorus or phrase that’s repeated more than once, even though it feels like it must do.
A lot of modern ‘crescendo rock’ also utilises lyrics that are opaque to the point of being meaningless, and that’s no different here, for the most part. Buckley was a massive Smiths fan, but there’s none of the multi-layered humour and self-analysis that Morrissey was so great at. Sure, some of the couplets (when paired with that voice and these arrangements) are strikingly memorable (the “please kiss me” line from “Last Goodbye”), but they’re counterbalanced by a stream of adolescent clunkers (“she is the tear that hangs inside my soul forever” from “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”). But these wracked, intense demonstrations of emotion are forgivable, ignorable even, because (again) of that voice, and how fulsomely and convincingly Buckley throws himself into the songs.
Also, a lot of the time I simply don’t have a clue what lyrics Buckley’s singing, such is the fervour with which he bends vowels and consonants and syllables out of recognisable patterns. (In 2016, of course, you could just look-up the lyrics on the internet, but in 1997 that wasn’t so easy.) (Are they in the sleeve? I can’t even remember.) (They’re ultimately not that important.) (And music writing that leans on literary analysis of lyrics just plain sucks, anyway.)
Like an intense, body-shaking adolescent sobbing fit (or a big teenage wank), Grace gives catharsis but can leave you feeling spent and a touch guilty for letting yourself go to the indulgence of release. Revisiting it has been fascinating; I’ve no idea what I’d make of a record like Grace if I were to encounter it new today, but I’m very glad I got to it when I was 18.