I remember reading of Jeff Buckley’s death when I was 16 and thinking how death by drowning seemed a most unfitting end for a rock star. Although I was familiar with his name, I’d never heard Buckley’s music. So I was unaware that he wasn’t actually a star, and I certainly didn’t know that “rock” couldn’t begin to suffice as a descriptor for his music. Sure, much of it could fall under the umbrella term of “rock”, but it doesn’t do justice to his remarkable skill as an emoter within a range of styles, as evidenced by his way with unarguably non-rock songs like “Lilac Wine” and “Corpus Christi Carol”. Neither of those appears on So Real, but they’re not especially missed. In the case of “Corpus Christi Carol”, it’s certainly understandable: it’s good, but not great. The omission of the jaw-dropping “Lilac Wine” is a bit more baffling, but it probably comes down to there already being eight songs from Grace on this compilation—including Buckley’s definitive take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—and, not wanting to risk overkill, the compilers tossed the remaining covers. Fair enough.
Yes, you read that right: eight of the ten songs from 1994’s Grace—the only album Buckley released during his lifetime, and thus the only one of his records over which he had any real control—appear on So Real. And yet this collection doesn’t feel like an alternate Grace. Rather, it does an admirable job of reconciling that very finished album, the one on which his reputation was built, with the rest of Buckley’s rather spotty catalogue. That doesn’t mean it’s a necessary release, or that its purpose is especially clear, but it does mean that So Real presents a pretty accurate, well-rounded guide to Buckley’s music. This means that, as on Grace, melodic, brooding hard rockers pound against floating ballads, and the heart that pumps life into all of it is Buckley’s remarkable voice. It was a versatile instrument, one that could navigate the swirling melodies of “Last Goodbye” or “Dream Brother” with the same ease it brought to the more straight-forward “Hallelujah”, the climax of which features Buckley drawing out a single note for a full 20 seconds over his own cascading electric guitar.
Another reason So Real isn’t just Grace Revisited is that four of the Grace songs are in fact presented in different versions. The only one of these that could possibly be called radically different is “Mojo Pin”, taken from Live at Sin-e. Before its rebirth as an exercise in dichotomous sounds and volumes, “Mojo Pin” was one of the dramatic centerpieces of his solo sets, and only fails to peak like the studio version because of the absence of the band. “So Real” gets an acoustic treatment and doesn’t lose much in the process. (It also serves as bait for completists, as it comes from a promotional single.) “Eternal Life” and “Dream Brother” are alternates whose essences remain mostly unchanged, even with changed lyrics. Wisely, the rest of the Grace material comes straight from that album, and these songs hold up very well out of their original context. So listeners only familiar with Grace won’t feel too disoriented with So Real, but neither will they feel ripped off.
Buckley’s posthumous output is a bit of a grab bag, but So Real chooses wisely from this material. The near-soul of “Everybody Here Wants You”, the mysterious jangle of “Vancouver” and the harder rock of “The Sky Is a Landfill” fit well alongside the stuff from Grace. “Je N’en Connais Pas La Fin”, from Sin-e, mines some of the same feel as the absent “Corpus Christi Carol”, but with much more pleasing results. This might be the most genuinely surprising selection on So Real, but it does the trick of showing Buckley at his gentlest while showcasing his voice in its impossibly high upper register, and for that it’s a perfectly welcome pick. The Grace outtake “Forget Her” takes its rightful place among Buckley’s finest work, and the closing cover of the Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over” (the only truly unreleased track here), while a bit too clever in its placement—Hey! It’s about death!—is an amazingly understated performance, and still a more adventurous final pick than “Hallelujah”.
It’s hard to argue with what’s here, with the sequencing and flow—the opening trio of “Last Goodbye”, “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” and “Forget Her” should perfectly hook the new listener—or with the decision to place such an emphasis on Grace. But for what listener is So Real intended? As a gateway drug, a potential first purchase for the neophyte, will So Real do the trick? Will the listener not sated by its 72-minute bounty proceed to seek out the remainder of the Buckley canon and line more corporate pockets? Will the person who’s subsisted on Grace but has been understandably wary of the rest see this as an opportunity to dip a toe in the larger puddle? Who knows. Ultimately, the motives behind this release don’t matter too much when the music is so rich with emotion and power.