Counterbalance No. 69: Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’

Jeff Buckley

Mendelsohn: I didn’t know who Jeff Buckley was before we started this crazy endeavor. Now that I know who he is, and have listened to his music, I don’t feel like my life has improved in any measurable way. I’m also a little upset that Jeff Buckley isn’t Jeff Beck, which is who I thought we’d be covering until I actually bothered to read the entire name of the entry.

It’s weird that I haven’t had much of a run-in with Buckley, especially since this album was released right at the heart of my teen years, when music meant everything. But then, I was listening to exactly the opposite of however you might characterize this album. Although apparently, I’m not the only one who doesn’t know who Buckley is either, since the last three people I just asked had the same response. Do you know who Jeff Buckley is, Klinger? And if you do, how exactly would you characterize this album?

Klinger: You do realize the giant can of whoop-ass you’ve just opened up upon yourself, don’t you Mendelsohn? Jeff Buckley may necessarily not be a household name, but he does have a pretty devoted following among music nerds the world over, and I’m sure many of them have already scrolled down to the comments section to alert you to your woeful ignorance. If nothing else, you should at least be aware of his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, which has made its way into the public vernacular as something of a standard, appearing on most television shows in the last decade as well as just about every season of American Idol. If you’re not careful hearings will soon be called to discuss revoking your music nerd status. I’ll probably testify on your behalf. We’ll see.

Mendelsohn: Well, it wouldn’t be the first time my confession of ignorance has brought about a Salem-esque witch-hunt followed by a farce of a trail. By the way, I beat that rap too, haters. If the glove don’t fit, it must have been the one-armed man. In my defense, I don’t really watch regular TV. My DVR is full of weird cartoons, house renovation porn (Tom Silva has a huge brain), and several years’ worth of Frontline that I keep telling myself I’m going to watch but never get around to. Buckley’s soaring vocals and lush arrangements just aren’t going to make it into those soundtracks. Although, I haven’t seen all of the episodes of Adventure Time—it might be in one of those.

Klinger: While I’m certainly edified to know the contents of your DVR, Mendelsohn, I’m not sure you’re helping your case. Now as for this album, I know it’s overly glib to say that Grace sounds like Freddie Mercury fronting Bush, but I can’t stop thinking that every time I hear “Eternal Life”. And anyway, it might be useful as a jumping-off point. Yes, Jeff Buckley’s voice is a glorious, soaring instrument, which he used to marvelous effect in a number of different settings. He proves that time and time again throughout this album, and there are moments throughout Grace where I just sort of stop everything, amazed that this voice is capable of doing what I just heard it do.

Still, I can’t help wishing that Grace hadn’t been made in the 1990s, because I think the level of bombast could have been toned down considerably. If Buckley had been recording in the ’70s, for example, he probably would have relied more heavily on acoustic instrumentation, and he would have sounded more like a male Joni Mitchell (to say nothing of the resemblance to his estranged father Tim). That post-grunge Alternative Nation boom created a place for a great many musicians who might otherwise have been overlooked, but it also seems to have placed certain sonic expectations on those artists. Let’s just say I’d love to have heard a Jeff Buckley who had never heard of grunge.

Mendelsohn: Well, for the record, I like your characterization of Jeff Buckley as Freddie Mercury meets Bush. This album is unmistakably from the 1990s, it has that wall-of-sound production value that seemed to be the requisite by the middle of the decade. And as Shaggy so eloquently reminded us just a year after Grace was released, boombast was all the rage.

In all seriousness, I can see why this album is so highly regarded, bombast or no. There is a rarefied beauty to Grace, due almost exclusively to Buckley’s vocal work, that you don’t hear often, let alone in the 1990s. I’m not a fan of achingly beautiful albums—I made that clear when we discussed Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks—but I too find myself stopping and just marveling at Buckley’s nearly limitless voice.

Klinger: Well now, the more I think about it the more I realize I should probably walk back that earlier characterization—comparing anyone to Bush is completely unfair. How about Robert Plant fronting Soundgarden? [Wouldn’t that just sound like regular Soundgarden?–Ed.] Either way I’m beginning to think that the music of the ’90s is a real blind spot for me. There’s something in the chords they used then—those dour, droning, shapeless chords that were a hallmark of what the industry called grunge—that made me allergic to rock by about 1997. I realize now that’s the sound that sent me scrambling toward jazz, soul, pre-rock vocalists—anything that didn’t remind me of the malaise that was for some stupid reason so prevalent back then.

Jeff Buckley’s influences clearly lay far beyond the muck and ooze that surrounded him—that explains why he collaborated with Gary Lucas, who’s worked with everyone from Captain Beefheart to John Sebastian. And Buckley’s musical small-c catholicism is evident as he takes on Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” and Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol”. It’s even more apparent on the posthumously released expanded version of the Live at Sin-E collection, which further reveals the full depth and breadth of Buckley’s palette, and on the bonus tracks in the Grace Legacy Edition. I’m normally not too keen on discussing bonus track jiggery-pokery here at Counterbalance—I think albums should speak for themselves in their original state—but I think there’s a lot to be gleaned from hearing Buckley removed from the ethereal-doomed-angel persona that he’s been tagged with since his tragic death. Hearing these outside influences peek through on Grace, though, makes me wish that they would have been allowed to shine through in the production here.

Mendelsohn: Soundgarden fronted by Robert Plant would have been awesome and would have sounded nothing—nothing—like Jeff Buckley. I am now entranced by that idea. Make it happen, you greedy record company executives! I’ll pay out the nose to see the Golden God lay down the vocals for anything off of Badmotorfinger.

Look, at first blush it’s quite clear that Buckley had almost nothing in common with his grunge brethren, except for the droning, but then everyone was droning about something in the ’90s. It’s not that I’m questioning the quality of the songwriting on this disc, but whenever an artist leaves this plane of existence too early, I’m always left wondering if the critics are more willing to look past some of a record’s flaws. Do you think that might be the case here, or would we still be talking about Buckley if he had gone on to release a string of artistically sound but unimpressive records?

Klinger: Two reasonable questions you’ve posited, Mendelsohn. Since even rock nerds are people and not hateful monsters, we do of course feel bad when a person dies. So of course we overlook a few shortcomings when assessing a late artist’s work. So while Grace may not have achieved universal acclaim in 1994, its status has grown immeasurably as people have opted to go the nil nisi bonum route and instead focus on the haunting nature of the songs, which were of course made even more so by Buckley’s untimely passing.

In death, Buckley was granted legendary status despite only having completed one full-length LP in his lifetime. And that seems somehow fitting, given the shadow of death that permeates the lyrics of Grace. That status has been reinforced with the ubiquity of “Hallelujah”—countless recordings of this song exist, but Buckley’s version is probably the closest to definitive. That’s seems to be down to the fact that despite his vocal acrobatics, Buckley was a true interpreter of lyrics, burrowing deep inside the layers of meaning where so many others skim the surface.

While it’s true that I’m having trouble sorting out my feelings about this album–which is alternately so beautiful and so bleak and so often both–it’s apparent to me that Buckley had a lot more to offer. I’d like to think that in time his influences would win out over the confines of his immediate sonic surroundings, and the music he’d make going forward would present the full spectrum of those influences, and he could escape the trappings of their times. But that’s me—most people don’t have the same issues with the ’90s that I had, and that bodes well for Grace‘s legacy on the Great List and Buckley’s place in the canon.