On 29 May 1997, Jeffrey Scott Buckley disappeared in the waters of Wolf River. Though the body was found a few days later, we’ve been trying to recover Jeff Buckley even since. He left and gifted us with one complete and finished full-length album, the stunning
Grace, a debut of otherworldy talent suggesting Buckley had the potential to be the next Dylan or Springsteen. We will have his music forever, but we will forever be denied his future. Released in August of 1994 during the height of grunge, Grace was as much of the punk record R.E.M. said they’d made with 1992’s Automatic For the People (both Buckley and R.E.M. would go harder with their next work). Andy Wallace who mixed Nirvana’s Nevermind, Sonic Youth’s Dirty, and Helmet’s Meantime produced Grace so perhaps Buckley was hedging his bets just a little.
The only other full-length release—maybe it’s just a compilation of tracks in various stages of (in)completion—is 1998’s
Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk featuring final but not finalized studio recordings and four-track demos giving a view as tantalizing as it is frustrating of what the next album might have sounded like. The live Mystery White Boy from 2000 was next.
Since then deep dives into the archives have brought up various live performances, demos, rehearsals, alternate versions, rough versions, compilations, and expanded versions (by the way where is the immaculate composition with Elizabeth Fraser, “All Flowers in Time Bed Towards the Sun”, which may be not only Buckley’s best unreleased track but one of his best tracks of any type?). One can debate which of these are essential, but it’s all finite, and the only way to prolong Buckley’s afterlife is to move back to previous material in some form or fashion.
Negative Press Project offers mostly instrumental covers of his material. Classified as jazz, Negative Press Project also incorporates pop, rock, and chamber music. They are a fitting group to cover and make new material inspired by Buckley who used elements of pop, hard rock, blues, and jazz—whatever was needed—in his compositions. Just as they draw from a variety of genres, Negative Press Project lists different but overlapping groups of players on their webpage, the liner notes of
Eternal Life, and the press release for the album. The two core members appear to be bassist Andrew Lion and piano/keyboardist Ruthie Dineen.
The opening piece is the instrumental “Wolf River”, a piano, guitar, trumpet, and saxophone- based number with soft drums that is relaxed and somber, though the trumpet gets ahead of the track, perhaps deliberately, just a bit at times around the middle. “Wolf River” reproduces the initial sadness of learning of Buckley’s death and then remembering the power of his music. The lone saxophone of “Mojo Pin (Prelude) flows right into the gentle “‘Mojo Pin” with the sax picking up the melody. The bass in the background replicates Buckley’s vocal rhythm. Further into the track, the bass hands the vocal line off to the sax. Just as the original “Mojo Pin” has a short breakaway section that speeds up so too does the Negative Press version with chaotic guitars and wind instruments. It’s a rendition that succeeds because it is faithful but not too faithful to the original, which is the aesthetic of all the songs on CD one. The bare “Lilac Wine” uses a double bass and nothing else. The first CD closes out with “Anthem (For Jeff Buckley)”, a pleasant horn piece in the same vein as the preceding tracks.
In some cases, we get covers of covers as is the case of CD two’s instrumental “The Man That Got Away” covered by Buckley and originally written by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin who published it in 1953 (perhaps the best-known version is by Judy Garland). The last three tracks, “Lover, You Should’ve Cover Over”, “So Real”, and “Eternal Life” all use vocals, but none of them equal the Buckley versions. Also, they don’t offer anything particularly new except for “Eternal Life” which contains both slightly and briefly—but too slightly and too briefly—a change in the music and shades of Diamanda Galás in the vocals. If you don’t prefer them, you can refer to the instrumental versions on the first CD. For those yearning for some vocals, this will satisfy you.
The whole album is fraught with potential hazards because covers succeed either because they are better than the original, which is often a tall order, or they are different enough that they also stand as works in their own right, which often alienates fans of the originals. Most of the tracks from
Eternal Life strike the right balance between interpretation and reproduction (translations may be a more accurate term than covers). That’s the issue with these vocal tracks: they don’t surpass Buckley, but for the most part they aren’t making it new enough either.
Eternal Life is not so much a resurrection (actual recordings by Buckley), a reanimation (heavy-handed studio manipulation of original demos), or a reliving (covers) as it is a reincarnation. Like reincarnation, the core essence is there, but many of the surface features have changed.
Ultimately, because it is not Buckley himself,
Eternal Life can only be a partial recovery, like seeing a lost loved one in a dream that is incomplete and all too brief. Nothing can bring Jeff Buckley back, but outside of finding more recordings of him, this is one of the more successful attempts.