[5 November 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Tim Buckley died of a heroin overdose in 1975 at 28 years old, less than 10 years into a recording career that was anything but predictable. Signed to Elektra Records by Jac Holzman in 1966, Buckley was blessed with an angelic, nearly androgynous tenor that found a home in the worlds of folk, jazz, blues, rock, and soul. Buckley did not overstay his time in any one style too long; he constantly absorbed and mixed ideas from an array of sources and influences. If The Best of Tim Buckley is any indication, his 12-string guitar was as relevant to his art as band member David Friedman chiming in on vibes. As such, the renegade spirit of Buckley has endeared him to generations of rock critics and vinyl-scouring hipsters who shroud his legacy in myth: anachronistic musical genius, self-destructive romantic. How does Rhino’s The Best of Tim Buckley play for someone just discovering Buckley’s work?
For fans of Buckley, it might seem futile to cherry pick through his nine albums, since many compositions were conceived as part of a larger work, not a 45 rpm single. For just one track to represent 1970’s critically lauded Starsailor album, for example, borders on sacrilege. This collection is not designed with the diehard fans in mind, per se. To fresh ears, The Best of Tim Buckley is a challenging listen for the simple reason that, with all its variety, Buckley’s oeuvre is difficult to crystallize in one 75-minute package. A degree of patience is required upon first listen because the compilation groups together every sharp turn in Buckley’s artistic evolution. If the listener approaches Rhino’s noble attempt to succinctly explain Tim Buckley like a map, to further explore the terrain of Buckley’s discography, then the listening becomes revelatory. The discoveries on The Best of Tim Buckley are manifold: the haunting choir on “Morning Glory”, the chilling call of the siren on “Song to the Siren”, the various movements of “Goodbye and Hello”, the sepia-toned strings on Buckley’s tender cover of Tom Waits’ “Martha”.
Tim Buckley - I’m Coming Home Again
The ebb and flow of Buckley’s voice is, itself, a discovery for new listeners. “Aren’t You the Girl”, a fairly conventional folk-pop song from Buckley’s self-titled debut album, opens this set, illustrating how his trembly tenor could effortlessly soar to a bell-clear belt. During the years between 1966’s Tim Buckley and 1969’s Happy Sad, Buckley immersed himself in jazz. The loose arrangement on the vibe-driven “Strange Feelin’” gave Buckley unlimited space to moan low on certain phrases and spontaneously ascend towards emotional heights on others. The latter part of Buckley’s career found him adopting a grittier, blue-eyed soul affectation on tracks like “Move With Me” and “Look at the Fool”. Whether this was his choice, or at the insistence of the record company, isn’t clear, but the performances sound slightly boxed-in. Had Buckley lived beyond his 28 years, it’s likely he would have progressed in many directions after 1974’s Look at the Fool. As he sang so appropriately on “The River”, from 1969’s Blue Afternoon, “And just like the river / I can change my ways”.
Death is a harbinger for myth, for the deceased cannot refute or confirm facts. More than any other figures, dead rock stars and musicians have a predisposition to be mythologized. Hendrix, Morrison, Janis, Lennon, Marley—anything from T-shirts and posters to biopics and failed Broadway musicals emblazon a larger than life image of these artists in our minds. Yet the projected image often obscures a deeper understanding of the individual beyond what they’ve come to represent in a pop culture vacuum. Musicians are no more or less human than their audience. They’re equipped with the same vices, frailties, and conflict as any one of their listeners. These qualities inform their music and, ultimately, forge a connection an audience. We render them gods and goddesses from the magical sound emanating through speakers, displaced from time and space. Somewhere in the midst of worship, though, the art is overlooked. The Best of Tim Buckley does its best to direct the listener’s attention to the artist’s music rather than his myth, though some may argue that the two are inseparable (see Matthew Specktor’s compelling liner notes). Most critical of all, The Best of Tim Buckley affords a well-compiled introduction to an artist who created art fearlessly, on his own terms, restlessly swimming against the tide.