Today marks the anniversary of one of the most beloved albums ever released. Jeff Buckley’s sole studio offering, Grace was released on August 23, 1994, to an initial lukewarm reaction. However, as the years since its release and the accidental death of Jeff Buckley pass us by, Grace, has garnered a hallowed reputation.
An accomplished album in every sense of the word, the beauty of Grace is that it gives us an insight into the inner workings of the complex and tragic hero that was Jeff Buckley. In the years since his death, he has gained mythical status, as artists who are talented and who sadly die prematurely normally do.
However, the thing about Jeff Buckley is just how unique his work is. There has been no one, and never will be anyone like him. An artist born out of his childhood environment, Buckley felt he would never escape the spectre of his father, folk icon, Tim Buckley.
For those unaware, Tim Buckley was one of the premier American folk singers of the 1960s and early ’70s but was an absent father to Jeff. However, he died in 1975, aged only 28, from a heroin overdose. Jeff was nine at the time. Furthermore, Jeff claimed to have only met him once, when he was eight years old, as his parents had divorced before he was born. From the discourse that exists around Jeff Buckley’s life, it is clear that he felt his father’s legacy overshadowed his own. For the first part of his life, he went by the name of Scott Moorhead, a hybrid of his middle name and his stepfather’s surname in an attempt to shed his father’s ubiquitous legacy.
This is probably the worst piece of the tragedy of Jeff Buckley’s death. It is claimed that right up until his accidental drowning in 1997, he never got to realise the fact that he had carved out his own musical path, and in the eyes of everyone else, his music was brilliantly individual. Although initially, “people just didn’t get it”, when it did click for audiences, there was no one as captivating as Jeff Buckley.
I’m sure I am just one of many people who wish that Jeff Buckley would have been around long enough to realise his own worth as an artist and a human being.
A complex individual, his feelings permeated his work over his brief career. His incredible vocal range remains nothing short of emotionally affecting, and his wailing falsetto acts as a sonic knife into the heart. Although it is wickedly ironic that Buckley died prematurely like his father, through the body of work he left us with he will continue to endure ad infinitum.
Although his live albums such as the posthumous Live À L’Olympia are hailed as the best testament to him, one cannot doubt the majesty of Grace. What it achieves in production and composition is truly remarkable. At points, such as in the verses of track four, the cover of James Shelton’s ballad, ‘Lilac Wine’, it is as if you are sat in a smoky, jazz club, on your own, being serenaded by Buckley. In fact, ‘Lilac Wine’ evokes the image of the mysterious club in David Lynch’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet. Just instead of Isabella Rossellini, it is the brooding Buckley enrapturing audiences.
The other thing about Grace, and its standing in his back catalogue, is that Buckley channelled his lifetime of complicated, pent-up emotions into its takes. The haunting album opener ‘Mojo Pin’ is one of the album’s highlights. A bizarre, dream-like piece, it has that classically Jeff Buckley heavy undercurrent, with its melodic, detuned guitars. In fact, the song is the best portrayal of the hard-rocking, psychedelic element of Jeff Buckley’s work.
At his now-iconic performance at London’s Astoria in 1995, Buckley told the audience of the song: “Sometimes if somebody you feel you need… the whole universe tells you that you have to have her, you start watching her favourite TV shows all night, you start buying her the things she needs, you start drinking her drinks, you start smoking her bad cigarettes, you start picking up her nuances in her voice, you sleep in safe sometimes the most dangerous thing… this is called Mojo Pin.”
It is worth mentioning at this point that Buckley was not only a fantastic vocalist but a brilliant guitarist. A glaring example of this is on the title track ‘Grace‘. Originally written by Buckley collaborator Gary Lucas as an instrumental, one of the track’s most iconic features is its jangly, dovetailing guitar riff. The fact that Buckley sang as he did, and played as hard as he did, is nothing short of incredible.
Every song on Grace is profound. All in all, it is fifty-one minutes of an emotional rollercoaster. Introspective, and largely concerned with romance, for anyone who’s ever had their heartbroken, the album taps into emotions that were long thought put to bed. Whether that be the visceral live take of ‘So Real’, the Leonard Cohen cover of ‘Hallelujah’, or ‘Last Goodbye’, Buckley covers every emotion possible on Grace.
The weary personal debate inherent to ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’ concerning Buckley’s despondency as a young man growing older is something everyone, regardless of gender, can relate to. The ethereal, droning accordion at the start of the song is one of the most moving musical moves ever put to wax.
The last track on the original release of the album, ‘Dream Brother’, is a perfect testament to the measure of Buckley’s person. Written by him in tandem with bassist Mick Grøndahl and drummer Matt Johnson, it was written as an urge to Buckley’s friend, Chris Dowd of the rock band, Fishbone. In the song, Buckley pleads with Dowd not to walk out on his pregnant girlfriend just as his own father had done. The meaning of the verse is as clear as day: “Don’t be like the one who made me so old/Don’t be like the one who left behind his name/’Cause they’re waiting for you like I waited for mine/And nobody ever came”.
‘Dream Brother’ is an enchanting piece of music, making the song’s message even more apparent. Buckley opined: “It’s a song about a friend of mine, who’s led a rather excessive life… He is in trouble. This song is for him. I know what self-destruction can lead to, and I have tried to warn him. But I am one big hypocrite because when I called him up and told him about the song I’d written, that same night I took an overdose of hash and woke up the next day feeling terrible. It is very hard not to give in to one’s negative feelings. Life is total chaos.”
In a way, Grace represents something of your favourite musician’s favourite album. It is revered by some of the most iconic musicians of all time – another testament to Buckley’s achievement. Bob Dylan, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are just some of the all-time greats who have name-checked the album. This is amazing as Buckley’s favourite band of all time were Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page even considered it his favourite album “of the decade”. It is said that even David Bowie thought Grace to be one of the finest albums ever made.
Additionally, actor Brad Pitt, was in awe of Buckley: “There’s an undercurrent to his music, there’s something you can’t pinpoint. Like the best of films, or the best of art, there’s something going on underneath, and there’s a truth there. And I find his stuff absolutely haunting. It just… it’s under my skin.”
So on the anniversary of its release, why not jump back into Jeff Buckley‘s only studio effort. Get the tissues at the ready, as you won’t be the same afterwards. Remember the glorious artistry and emotional complexity of the man who said, “our suffering is peeling off and revealing a brand new skin, a new power. Love heals all wounds and not just time alone.”
Listen to Grace below.