September 15, 2004

Jeff Buckley "Grace"

When an artist dies at the start of a promising career, it's a tragedy. Fans--often nonexistant during the artist's lifetime--are left to play the game of 'what could have been': would they have become innovative, would they have become popular, or would they have lived their life in relative obscurity, finding fame only after years of poverty, indifference and finally death? That's the funny thing about the death of an artist--it often makes us forget about the reality of the artist's situation. Nobody seems to remember that John Lennon's Double Fantasy was universally panned upon its release, and that the album's mediocrity was in fact one of the reasons Lennon was murdered. Instead, it's considered to be a great work of art, when in fact it was easily one of his worst records.

Jeff Buckley's death in Memphis on May 29, 1997, was a tragedy to those who knew his name. He left the world with only one full-length, one EP and a handfull of demos for his next album, the possibly-titled My Sweetheart The Drunk. His passing was tragic because not only did he leave the world unrealized and underappreciated, but he also created a mythic rock and roll legacy--one that, given the circumstances of his personal life, he would not have appreciated. Or would he? Speculation exists as to the nature of his death; though in all likelyhood it was an accident, there are enough vague hints and clues in his last recordings and the last week of his life that will pernanantly leave his passing a mystery. It is little wonder, then, that Grace would receive the royal repackage treatment. With a lavish booklet and containing two extra CDs--one of demos and rarities, the other a DVD collection of videos and a documentary about the making of the album.

If you have never heard Grace, then I weep for you, because you've never fully known beauty. It's an album that's simply flawless and grows even more so with each passing year. Ten years on, you don't really think about how "Eternal Life" was merely grunge; you don't think about how "So Real"doesn't seem to belong on the album, and you really don't think about anything other than how utterly mindblowing this record really is. The temptation is there to think that this was the greatest album of the 1990s, and I'm not going to argue with you on that. Any man who can go from singing Nina Simone to Leonard Cohen to Benjamin Britten and then offer up his own songs that betterall of the above--that's a rare, impressive feat. There's not much more I can say about the album.

The second disc, however, is revelatory. Though about half of these songs were previously released as B-sides (three of which you'll already own if you have the Grace singles box set) , the other seven songs prove just how versatile Buckley really was. From a heavy-duty version of "Kick Out The Jams" to a really soft, sensual and heartbreaking cover of Nina Simone's "The Other Woman," Buckley was, at times, seemingly nothing more than a human jukebox who could and would often throw out covers of some of the best songs ever written. His take of Dylan's "Mama, You Been On My Mind" is especially touching, as is "The Other Woman." It's fascinating to hear "Eternal Life" turned into a raucious, Metallica-style rocker, even though it falls apart, it shows how tight Jeff and his band had become. "I Want Someone Badly," his collaboration with Shudder To Think, also shows that his penchant for Soul music had yet to be fully realized; it's easily the best non-Grace song he ever released; placed together by Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk's "Everybody Here Wants You," you'll get a glimpse at what could have been and where Jeff might be right now.

Among all this talk of greatness, there is one letdown, but it's one that isn't a particular letdown. The song "Forget Her" has been highly mythologized and considered to be one of Jeff's long-lost jewel. Long story short: it made a demo tape that was played for his label, Columbia; they loved it and wanted it--and thusly considered it--to be the first single. Jeff hated the song and a creative battle ensued. (For a more detailed history of the song, you should read the biography of Jeff entitled Dream Brother.) Listening to it now, Jeff's opinion about the song was right on; it's really not that good. It's a slow blues number; it would have sounded out of place on Grace, and the song that replaced it, "So Real," was not much better, either.

"Forget Her" is but a minor blemish on what's an otherwise wonderful collection. This is the representation of Grace as it should be--Buckley's first yet final musical statement. This repackage ties up many loose ends, and as a document of the brief musical life of Jeff Buckley, it cannot be bettered. I say it cannot, for two reasons: one, there's no way you could improve on the love and care that went into this repackage, but secondly (and sadly), there's no way you can get better than this, because this is it. There is no more Jeff Buckley to be had. This expanded version of Grace is, truly, his last goodbye.

--Joseph Kyle

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