Rating 4 - Very Good
by Johnny Walker
The next two times I saw Jeff he was never less than excellent, but it already seemed as if the pressures on him - with an album that started slow but that soon began to gather a major head of sales steam - were beginning to take their toll. Amazingly enough, though, he managed to continue to orchestrate his own unique brand of magic - as when he transformed an in-store appearance at HMV Records into nirvana, and again when he played a show in a local church. At the church he appeared ragged and liquored-up, both tired and energized from doing battle with the audience's expectations, which, in the end, he ended up satisfying. Still, he was struggling with the ghost of a long-dead father who, although he'd abandoned his son, also bequeathed him an amazing set of multi-octave pipes. Jeff seemed resentful, and slightly suspicious that the now-much-larger audience was there in part to hear him conjure Tim, when the fact of the matter was that he was already far more popular than his obscure father had ever been.
I started to have premonitions at that show -- the last time I ever saw Jeff -- that the singer was somehow too fragile to last in the garish world of popular culture. He'd also inherited his father's tendency to deep, dark depression, as well as Tim's existential attitude of the artist at war with a crass bourgeois society. Grace was in fact a black album that contained allusions to the singer's ultimate underwater demise (in "Dream Brother"). And although he often professed to hate them (even though Jeff was a great deal more familiar with his father's back catalogue than he'd ever been able to admit in public), the only valid artistic comparisons one can make to the work of a singular artist such as Jeff Buckley is to the only other "rock" singer who possessed such an amazing voice: Tim Buckley. This too is Jeff's fate.
Of course, by the time he died of an overdose, Tim Buckley had managed a whole career in slightly less time than it would take for Jeff to release an album and EP (Live At Sin-e), and drown in the Mississippi river. Throughout his career, Tim was known for artistic restlessness. The aptly-titled Sketches (For My Sweetheart, The Drunk) highlights that same dilemma in the work of his son -- if the Apollonian, pristine sound of Grace was Jeff's version of Tim's similar Goodbye & Hello, then it seems that Jeff had now jumped a few Buckley albums ahead to offer an amalgamated version of the old man's challenging avant-jazz Starsailor and his raunchy funk-rocking Greetings From L.A.. Jeff, of course, growing up in a different age, filters his artistic sensibility through Led Zeppelin and '80s gloom-rock stalwarts like The Cure and The Smiths, rather than the more jazz- and folk-oriented '60s influences of his father.
So never mind Evander Holyfield: disc one here is the real deal. Stemming from sessions with Television guitarist Tom Verlaine, these tracks are pretty much completed, and hold together well as an album. The first song, "The Sky Is A Landfill," is a careening Zeppelin-by-way-of-Killing Joke riff-rocker, which is arguably Buckley's finest moment both musically and lyrically, featuring many a riveting image as Jeff posits Dionysian rebellion as the final refutation to a soul-crushing corporate world where lives are bought and sold like so much "product." A striking apocalyptic millennial vision of "a garbage dump of souls that will now black the sky" is conjured; "We'll share our bodies in disdain for the system" Buckley spits in defiance. Added chills are provided by the singer's overt reference to himself in the past tense: "I had no fear of this machine" he screams, just before offering up a blistering guitar break that underscores the sentiment.
The rest of the first disc lives up to the promise of this instant classic. "Everybody Here Wants You" sees Jeff moving into the white-soul genre of latter-day Tim; the former Buckley, however, is more comfortable in the higher registers, and here offers up a truly convincing approximation of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye Motown with a falsetto that would make Mick Jagger turn green with envy. Again, we have what now sound like foreshadowings of Jeff's fate: "I'm only here for this moment," he coos to the object of his affections with an eerie certainty. "Witches Rave" meanwhile, swings with a breezy, jazzy gait, yet maintains a rock edge, while "Morning Theft" returns to the fragile emotive terrain of Grace, as Buckley, in his sweetest voice, mourns the end of a relationship, cynically wondering if his ex-partner views him as "some fool drama queen whose chances were few." The hallucinatory "New Year's Prayer" is part reggae, part Persian snake-charmer music, with Buckley's slithery voice appropriately winding in and out of the proceedings.
The second half of the first disc is where the set's surprises really lie: "Vancouver" and the Cure-ish "Nightmares By The Sea," with its hauntingly premonitory line "stay with me under these waves tonight" -- feature chiming guitars and neo-gothic atmospheres, betraying Buckley's aforementioned love for '80s alt-rock. "Yard Of Blonde Girls," meanwhile, sounds like a glam-trashy amalgam of T. Rex and Smashing Pumpkins, while "You & I" is JB stripped to the bone, his forlorn, ululating voice melodically drifting against a funereal, medieval-ish background. Along with the more standard emotive Buckley ballad, "Opened Once," these tracks combine to broaden the scope of who Jeff Buckley was musically. There are no record company-picked tracks like classical composer Benjamin Britten's "Corpus Christi Carol" (from Grace) here to highlight Jeff's "angelic" voice; instead, we have Buckley the rocker getting his hands - among other appendages -- dirty, revelling in his "low," Dionysian influences a la Dad on Greetings From L.A.
Disc 2 of this set is more problematic, as much of it consists of more experimental work Buckley was messing with in the studio, much of which I'm sure was never intended for public consumption. Some tracks, like "Murder Suicide Meteor Slave" and "Back In New York City" (a Genesis cover!) show JB's heretofore submerged penchant for Starsailor's avant far-outness, while the last tracks he'd worked on alone in the studio, such as "Demon John" and "Your Flesh Is So Nice," alternatively find him moving in an even more extreme direction toward stripped down 'n' dirty, unabashedly carnal rock, i.e. Papa Tim on "Honeyman." The set's closer, a placid blues cover of "Satisfied Mind," however, is a nice touch: just Jeff on guitar and voice, singing the blues with a feel few white boys have ever possessed, voicing a sentiment that we can now only hope he found authentic.
A more accurate rating of Sketches would be: five stars for disc one; three stars for disc two; judged strictly on its own merits, disc one is album-of-the-year material. In contrast to Grace - which, while a fine debut, is also a bit too clean, too polished, too Apollonian - Sketches ...' raw edges and more wholly human feel should hold up to the test of time, just as Greetings From L.A. still sounds hot today. Goodbye & Hello is more like an admirable period piece.
Jeff Buckley fans now await the promised release of in-concert material that might more fully flesh out the oeuvre of this artist whose time was so long in coming, and so terribly short in duration.