Singer-songwriter Tim Buckley recorded his first album in two days back in 1966 when he was only 19-years-old. The self-titled disc earned Buckley a reputation as an eccentric, yet talented, musician. While couched in acoustic folk textures, the music was extravagantly produced. Buckley boldly experimented with delicate ornamentations and flowery, blissful sounds. A young Van Dyke Parks helmed the keyboards while the legendary Jack Nitzsche arranged the strings. Buckley sang archly, often trilling his words for effect. There’s something mysteriously beautiful in the result. Of course, he’s precocious and precious, like his son Jeff Buckley would be, but in a dramatic way so that he became an essential character in his own songs.
Rhino Handmade and Light in the Attic Records have jointly released a deluxe edition of Buckley’s debut release. The double-disc set contains one CD of original producer Bruce Botnick‘s (the Doors, Love) re-mastered versions of each of the dozen songs in both mono and stereo, and a 22-track CD that includes a dozen demos by Buckley with his band the Bohemians, and a slew of lo-fi home recordings of just him and his guitar. The package also includes rare photos and extensive liner notes about the recordings.
Buckley certainly deserves the royal treatment accorded here. He’s been a major influence on a slew of artists – one, the Britpop band Starsailor, even took its name from one of his albums. While this album did not sell well when initially released, its reputation has deservedly grown over time. It was always a cult item, prized among the cool fetish objects of ‘60s psychedelica. This new edition only provides more aural evidence of its greatness. The inflections in Buckley’s voice in mono or stereo can cause shivers. On tunes such as “Song for Janie”, “Strange Street Affair Under Blue”, and “Valentine Melody”, Buckley used his voice to lure listeners into sonic puzzles that build and develop into emotional landscapes.
The lyrics are as self-consciously poetic as his voice. Buckley sounds as if he’s reading from a broadsheet more than from sheet music. This fits the sun-drenched West Coast style of the period (think Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile, which also featured Van Dyke Parks) but takes it a step further out there. “Springtime woman, sunrise girl / I am hiding behind the sea / Trick or treat, the Halloween world,” Buckley crooned over a haunting instrumental background. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but it was not supposed to as a straight narrative. He offered a collage of different elements juxtaposed together that suggested more than it said. That was the interactive point back in the pre-digital age.
The 22 songs on the bonus disc offer a different sort of pleasure as you get to hear Buckley in the raw. The dozen tunes with the Bohemians are standard folk rock from the period, but Buckley’s ethereal voice stood out even then. The demos of “Aren’t You the Girl”, “I Can’t See You”, and “Wings”, which later appear on his debut album, show how important changing dynamics were even when playing solo. He goes from a bellow to a whisper without the need for orchestration, although the polished versions on the official disc are better.
Buckley successfully walked the tightrope of freak folk back in the day. He later ventured into much more experimental music. Back in 1972, I caught him open for the Mothers of Invention and he just yodelled. It was actually very cool, if strange, and a long way from where he began musically. He died a few years later, from a combination of alcohol and heroin, but Buckley’s work continues to fascinate.