Death loomed over music in the ’90s. Several of the decade’s most promising musicians lived just long enough to leave a mark on the world before leaving it far too soon. Kurt Cobain quipped about naming Nirvana’s final album I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, a joke that became all too real with his suicide. He was later joined in death by two of his grunge compatriots, Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell — the latter of whom, many thought, had overcome his demons long ago. 2Pac and The Notorious B.I.G.’s feud ended not with reconciliation but with the deaths of both men. (Biggie’s debut, lest we forget, was ominously named Ready to Die.) And then there’s Jeff Buckley, whose death may be the most meaningless of them all: he simply went for a swim in a river and was pulled under the water in the wake of a passing boat.
Buckley had only one album to his name when he died, but my word, what an album it was. Grace hit shelves in 1994, arguably alternative rock’s single greatest year; its contemporaries included Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Beck’s Mellow Gold, Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, Hole’s Live Through This, Green Day’s Dookie, and Weezer’s (first) self-titled album, to name just a few. The question isn’t whether or not Grace was superior to them — you can decide that one for yourself — but it sounded so fundamentally unlike those other albums that it might as well have come from another era. American alternative rock (as opposed to Britpop) was iconoclastic, disdainful of the hubris and hedonism of classic rock; moreover, it sounded ugly, and it dealt with ugly emotions.
Grace, on the other hand, was so … pretty. Compared with the blunt force riffage of Cobain, Kim Thayil (of Soundgarden), and other grunge guitarists, Buckley’s guitarwork was nimbler and more melodic and made much greater use of reverb than distortion. But prettiest of all remains Buckley’s voice — an instrument that has been described as “angelic” and “ethereal” so many times that it baits exasperation until you listen to it again and realize holy shit, it really is that special. The range and clarity of Buckley’s voice enabled him to not just cover but reinterpret seemingly every corner of the classic rock canon, which he had obvious respect for; filtered through Buckley’s voice box, the likes of Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Nina Simone, Van Morrison, and Leonard Cohen became something else entirely.
Speaking of Cohen, it’s impossible to write about Grace without setting aside at least a paragraph for Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah”. Going into this review, I was tempted to put off the song for as long as possible, or to not select it as one of the album’s essential tracks, but it couldn’t be done. There’s just no way to imagine Grace without “Hallelujah”. Like Johnny Cash’s take on Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”, Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” is so complete a transformation that it effectively steals the song for himself. For better or worse, it may be his definitive song: for better, because it really does demonstrate what was so remarkable about him — how pristine his singing and guitar playing were — and for worse, because its overuse in movies and television as a sort of emotional shorthand threatens to eclipse the other nine tracks on Grace.
While Cohen’s song wouldn’t loom over Buckley until long after he died, he entered the music industry under the shadow of another artist: his late father, Tim Buckley. The elder Buckley — a similarly gifted vocalist whose work spanned folk, jazz and funk (and is worth hearing in its own right) — had no relationship with his son, meeting him only once before his own accidental death in 1975. Jeff, then eight years old, wasn’t invited to the funeral. He’d get the chance to pay his last respects in 1991, singing a few of his father’s songs at the “Greetings from Tim Buckley” tribute concert. He didn’t intend to use his appearance as a breakthrough into the music industry (he requested that his name be left off the lineup), but it certainly put his foot in the door. (If you want to hear what Buckley was doing between the tribute concert and Grace, check out the expanded edition of Live at Sin-é.)
Other than his looks and his vocal range, Buckley took little from his father in his music, but his specter haunts closing track “Dream Brother”. The song is sung not to a lover but to a friend, warning him not to abandon his pregnant girlfriend and their unborn child: “Don’t be like the one who made me so old/ Don’t be like the one who left behind his name,” goes the chorus, “‘Cause they’re waiting for you like I waited for mine/ And nobody ever came.” Fittingly, journalist David Browne used the song’s title for his dual biography of the Buckleys, Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley.
Instead, Buckley drew from a vast range of other influences, and they manifest on Grace in creative, inexact ways. The title track, with its fleet guitar and mystic lyrics, sounds as if Van Morrison attempted to write a full-on rock song; at the same time, I can’t name a Morrison song that it reminds me of. Ditto for “Eternal Life”, which openly (but not obviously) reflects Buckley’s love of Led Zeppelin with their overdriven guitar riffs and thundering drums. (It’s the closest Buckley came to grunge, sounding similar to Soundgarden or early Pearl Jam.) Even his take on “Lilac Wine”, which is clearly indebted to Nina Simone’s version three decades prior, comes across less like mere mimicry and more like a genuine attempt to recreate the song’s magic for himself — which he succeeds at, replacing the stark piano of Simone’s cover with guitar reverb and cymbal rolls that enhance the song’s midnight glow.
But on the rest of Grace, Buckley really only sounds like himself. The dreamy (some might say druggy) “Mojo Pin” has some of the most creative and unexpected musical transitions outside of progressive rock, deftly switching between delicate fingerpicking, soft strumming, and rapid strumming. “Last Goodbye”, likely the second-best-known song on the album (after “Hallelujah”, of course), is such a soaring tune that you just might forget it’s a breakup song, using strings in a way that sounds splendid as opposed to syrupy. Bookending “Hallelujah” on the album are the hypnotic “So Real”, which repeats itself over and over again like a spiral staircase to the sky, and “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”, a slow-burning, yearning ballad. All of these songs serve as reminders that Buckley was making some of the most unique and unabashedly beautiful music of the ’90s.
After Grace, he’d grow more reluctant to record beauty for beauty’s sake. He also started to chafe under increased pressure from his label; Columbia had indulged Buckley in the studio and sent him on a year and a half of near-constant touring, but Grace was a slow seller and met with reviews that were favorable but not effusive. The label urged Buckley to release “Forget Her”, a bluesy lament that might have been a hit if Buckley hadn’t left it off Grace as a single — a request that Buckley, who had grown tired of the song, refused. (Some posthumous editions of Grace tacked the song onto the end after “Dream Brother”.) Going into Grace’s follow-up, then titled My Sweetheart the Drunk, Buckley seemed determined to make a record that was thornier and less commercial, enlisting Tom Verlaine (formerly of Television) to produce the initial sessions and eschewing its predecessor’s dalliances with folk and jazz. Where Buckley genuflected to the classics on Grace, My Sweetheart the Drunk seemed to be his bid for indie cred — and it probably would have gotten him a lot of it had he lived to finish the record the way he wanted. It’s impossible to know what it would have sounded like.
It’s also impossible to know what the reputation of Grace would be if Buckley were still alive today. In the years after Buckley’s passing, Grace drew praise from many of his idols: Bob Dylan called Buckley “one of the great songwriters of this decade”; David Bowie once claimed Grace to be among his favorite albums ever made; even Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, whose music Buckley had fallen in love with so long ago, paid their respects. The death of an artist changes the way we see their art as the loss of what we could have had forces us to reevaluate what we do have. There’s no doubt that Buckley wanted his debut album to stand the test of time, and it’s a shame that it’s the only classic he lived to complete. But it speaks to the musician that he could have been — the musician that he was — that Grace has left such a lasting legacy.
Essential Tracks: “Hallelujah”, “Grace”, and “Dream Brother”