Great artists dying before their time is not new to rock music. But there have been few whose brief career has been such a mystery as Jeff Buckley’s — certainly not in recent history. Maybe the recent release of Elliott Smith’s posthumous From a Basement on the Hill will catapult him into the realm of the departed famous. But for now, it is the anti-hero Jeff Buckley who bears the full weight of having his career and its unrealized potential debated by the bored critic everywhere.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the release of his debut album Grace, Columbia Records released a three-disc set, including the original album, 12 outtakes, and a DVD that includes a documentary on the making of Grace and five videos.
The DVD is certainly interesting, and provides a nice look into the world that Andy Wallace and Jeff Buckley created at Bearsville Studios. Andy Wallace speaks about the recording process with more depth than most producers. It enables a closer look into Jeff Buckley’s personality and provides some insight into the dynamic psyche that Buckley used to give birth to the now gigantic songs. Watching the Jeff Buckley interviews are interesting but at the same time disquieting. The entire documentary and all five videos seem permeated by the specter of Jeff Buckley.
It is not, however, the DVD that raises the most questions about Jeff Buckley’s career, but rather the one new track on the disc of outtakes, the bluesy, soulful “Forget Her.” The song was ultimately scrapped at the last minute for the ethereal “So Real”. That “Forget Her” has eluded release for as long as it has is surprising. It fully embodies, the feel of Grace, and would have sat nicely on the album. Jeff Buckley’s voice and guitar is powerful and heartfelt. Listening to it (over and over) begs the question, “Why did he decide not to release it as part of the album?” In the stunningly packaged liner notes, Mary Guibert, offers the lucid explanation: “It was for personal reasons that Jeff had removed it from the album.” And herein lies the mystery that will always surround Jeff Buckley.
“Forget Her” casts more shadows on his career than has already surrounded it. While it sounds at home on Grace, it seems to fit just as well in the body of songs he had begun work for what may or may not have been Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. So, what was it going to be? Were we going to see a commercial follow up to Grace? Was it going to be the dark and gnarled guitar of “Nightmares By the Sea”? It is likely the only answer given (if one were given it all) would be, “Jeff didn’t discuss it for personal reasons.” Often this comment can be interpreted to mean the artist is cracking up or battling with drugs. With the mercurial Jeff Buckley it means only that he wasn’t telling because he was likely going to change his mind.
The shroud over his career is also a result of such a limited body of work. Jeff Buckley was not a prolific songwriter like many of his idols. Or, if he was, he wasn’t telling anyone. It is unfortunate, not because fans jealously hang on every note he sings, but because the Legacy Edition is limited in its ability to truly capture his fragile genius.
Also contained here are stirring renditions of “Lost Highway” by Bob Dylan and Nina Simone’s “The Other Woman”. More impressive is the soulful track “I Want Someone Badly”, which Buckley performs with the band, Shudder to Think. The cut finds him in ’60s R&B territory, and his voice doesn’t disappoint.
Some of the tracks contained on the Legacy Edition are culled from previous compilations and EPs; so many buyers will already have them. However, the intimate lost track “Forget Her” and the documentary are worth the purchase alone. Jeff Buckley brought a depth to his music and the world he lived in that is uncommon, to say the least. Colombia has sought to capture it, and does a reasonably good job, even if they fail to shed any new light on the enigma of Jeff Buckley’s legacy.