Tim Buckley died of a heroin overdose in 1975 at age 28. During his lifetime he recorded nine studio albums. He was a uniquely gifted singer whose work was challenging, uneven, emotionally intense and nakedly personal. His career was characterized by restless experimentation and his music moved through three distinct phases.
The first two albums, Tim Buckley and Goodbye and Hello (both on Elektra) consist of poetic material with an emphasis on lyricism and social protest. Many fans like the naive prettiness of this work, but its hippy poetics now seem terminally dated.
The middle period work moves from atmospheric, vibes-and-acoustic-bass-colored mood-music on Happy/Sad (Elektra), Blue Afternoon (Straight) and Lorca (Elektra) to a breakthrough mix of primitivism and free jazz on Starsailor (Straight). On these albums, vocal expressionism takes over from lyricism. Tim Buckley developed original but always organic arrangements and time signatures and pushed his amazing voice into uncharted territory.
The last three studio albums, Greetings From LA (Straight), Sefronia (Manifesto) and Look at the Fool (Manifesto) de-escalate from the howling, warpaint-streaked, ecstasy of Starsailor and settle for more familiar funk-blues grooves. There is still an edge to the later music, especially Greetings From LA, a celebration of LA street sex, massage parlors, whips, squeaking bed springs and stretch marks.
One difficulty in anthologizing such a complex artist is that the work may sound incoherent if it is fully represented. On the other hand there is the temptation to smooth over rough creative ground, originally negotiated by awkward imaginative leaps and radical shifts of direction to give a false impression of tidiness and continuity. Morning Glory escapes neither of these pitfalls and ends up being both over-inclusive and incomplete.
Morning Glory‘s two-CD format is a basic error. One CD focuses mainly on the first three albums, adding a few live tracks. This weird sequencing choice means that the second CD has the burden of representing six albums.
Inevitably, the cuts on disc two are crude and painful. Rhino is marketing this compilation as a serious retrospective: “The Tim Buckley Anthology”. For the price ($31.97), they could easily have made this a three-CD set. An extra CD would have allowed Tim Buckley’s ouevre to be divided into three expanded, internally coherent sections, and given this music the space it needs to stretch out and be itself.
With a third CD, Rhino could also have added more of the unavailable material from the Straight albums. This trio of deleted albums contains Tim Buckley’s best work and includes his masterpiece, Starsailor. Instead, Morning Glory re-packages music that is already available in a cramped, cluttered and imbalanced sequence, while omitting much of the artist’s rarest and most important work. What we are given is a version of Tim Buckley: the pretty version, without the dangerous peaks and chasms that gave his music its visionary intensity.
Thankfully, some of the best Straight material is included on the second CD. Blue Afternoon and Greetings From LA are well represented, and in the absence of the original albums, these tracks alone make Morning Glory worth having. They also demonstrate some of the breadth of Tim Buckley’s wing-span. On “Chase the Blues Away” the voice floats like an eagle through misty, gray canyons. On “Make It Right”, it cruises the LA tenderloin looking for someone to, “beat me, whip me, spank me…make it right again.”
But Morning Glory‘s credentials as a definitive anthology are destroyed by its play-it-safe treatment of Tim Buckley’s edgiest works, Lorca and Starsailor. First, what is not there: namely, Lorca. In this anthology’s version of history, apparently Lorca never happened. Starsailor is also sidelined in favor of Blue Afternoon, its more conventionally melodic predecessor. Almost all of Blue Afternoon is included: six out of eight tracks. Only three of Starsailor‘s nine tracks make the cut. Second, what is there. The selections from Starsailor are “Moulin Rouge”, “Song to the Siren”, and “Monterey”. The first two are beautiful songs, but they are the sweeteners in a seven-shot expresso. They don’t represent Starsailor‘s overall spirit, its Mescalito soundscapes, alien mood and adrenochrome impact. Only “Monterey” gives a tantalizing glimpse of Starsailor‘s overpowering, hallucinatory rush.
If you have never heard Starsailor, imagine that The White Album has been deleted for years. Finally a major Beatles anthology appears, but the only White Album tracks it includes are “Blackbird”, “Revolution” and “Rocky Racoon”. No “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, no “Helter Skelter”, no “Revolution #9”. Unfortunately, because the original White Album is unavailable, the compilation represents the Beatles’s music as mainly melodic and edits out its weirdness, dark humor and experimentalism. This scenario is analogous to what Rhino have done with Tim Buckley’s music. Morning Glory has an agenda. It is an interpretative selection that diminishes and prettifies Tim Buckley to make him acceptable to a public that Rhino obviously feels is not ready for anything too far out.
To anyone who hasn’t heard Tim Buckley and is considering buying this anthology, try Happy/Sad first. For $9.99, you can sample some of Tim Buckley’s best mid-period work. If you like Happy/Sad, you’ll find much to love on Morning Glory.
To Rhino/WEA redeem yourselves, guys. Put Starsailor, Blue Afternoon and Greetings From LA back on the shelves in their entirety, and don’t mess with Tim Buckley ever again. He’s a wild thing, and the Great Spirit loves wild things. What were you thinking?