Jeff Buckley - Grace

Jeff Buckley would have slayed on American Idol. We know this because Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has become such a mainstay among TV singing contestants hoping to show off their virtuosic powers, and because nobody sang it better than Buckley. The song, originally released by Cohen in 1984, made its way to Buckley via John Cale’s 1991 cover version, which traded Cohen’s baritone deadpan and synthesized soul for piano arpeggios and annunciated dramatic flair. Buckley furthered that evolution, swapping out Cale’s reverent piano parts in favor of finger-plucked guitar figures that sound like his fingers gently coursing up and down a lover’s spine. It’s magnificent guitar work, flirtatiously pretty enough that it could probably stand alone as an instrumental. The voice, though, is the main attraction. Buckley imbued Cohen’s smirking lyrics with a deadly serious blend of reverie, agony, and lust, stretching from somber sighing whisper to earth-shaking cry with the same operatic flair he brought to every performance. He rarely lets it rip, opting mostly to let his celestially endowed esophagus emote with understated restraint. He doesn’t even break into his trademark falsetto. In those climactic moments when he does raise his voice, when the sensations he’s been holding at a simmer finally bubble up into a boil, the line between pleasure and pain is eradicated along with everything else; there is nothing left in the universe besides Buckley’s bleeding heart. It was an undeniably beautiful performance, enough to make “Hallelujah” a standard, and it stands as Buckley’s most iconic moment. It’s also the centerpiece of Grace, Buckley’s breathtaking debut album, which turns 20 years old tomorrow.

Grace was the only album Buckley released in his lifetime, yet if you load up his discography on Spotify you have to scroll through eight other releases to get to it. There are live releases, an EP anthology, a collection of radio sessions, and several sets of unreleased scraps — any excuse to hear more of that voice. Buckley drowned in 1997 after taking a dip in the Wolf River with his clothes on and getting caught in the wake of a passing ship, and like many musicians who died young, his legendary status has increased exponentially in his absence. Still, Buckley is not some Nick Drake character whose genius remained in obscurity until after he passed out of this world. His talents were widely celebrated when we alive, both by those who inspired him (Robert Plant, whose wanton wailing was a clear precursor to Buckley’s more refined emoting) and those he inspired (Thom Yorke, who cited Buckley’s influence on his own “Fake Plastic Trees” vocal take). His voice, so cataclysmic yet unimaginably delicate when he scaled it back, made him world-renowned.

Grace is a timeless showcase of that power. Again and again, he hummingbird-hovers over some string-laden sweep, then erupts into howling, growling, sensuality when the music gets bombastic — that, or he bellows seductively on a bed of spare ethereal guitar, or he roars exquisitely in moments of instrumental tumult, or he lifts his quivering falsetto back to the clouds from whence it came. But for all its awe-inspiring vocal performances, Grace offers more than that. Buckley’s most famous song is a cover, yet his songwriting was nearly as stellar as his singing. Structurally, the music on Grace mirrors his voice’s gorgeous flailing, often shifting from quiet, almost improvisational trembling to full-bodied rock songs with steady rhythms. It’s wildly unique and insanely dynamic. The twists and turns of opener “Mojo Pin,” for instance, expertly mimic the building tension and release of a sexual encounter; “So Real” pulls off the same trick without ever feeling like a retread. Buckley’s guitar playing throughout the album is nearly as memorable as his vocal takes — the riffs rippling through “Grace,” the gnarly chord changes undergirding “Last Goodbye,” the surprisingly ballsy hard-rock flourishes of the Soundgarden-esque “Eternal Life.” He was a longtime session player and the son of storied songwriter Tim Buckley, and both those legacies are reflected in Grace’s smart construction and wild flights of instrumental prowess.

Buckley’s lasting legacy is that voice, a divine power that he harnessed and whipped around like some superhero with a killer haircut. Yorke wasn’t the only one to imitate it; there’s an entire school of (mostly British) vocalists who owe their careers to Buckley, including but not limited to Chris Martin, Matthew Bellamy, Fran Healy, and that guy from Ours. Grace is a fine time capsule of Buckley’s tremendous singing ability, but beyond that, it’s a portrait of a well-rounded artist brimming with inspiration. When we lost him in 1997, we lost not only countless stirring vocal performances but many albums’ worth of unwritten songs. Maybe he never would have conjured the same charisma again, and Grace would still stand as his best and brightest offering to history, or maybe he would have given us masterpiece after masterpiece. We’ll never know. The one album he did leave us is still good enough to elicit chills two decades later. It remains a vast personal universe to be explored. There’s nothing else quite like it — so real, so raw, so gorgeous.

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Comments (51)
  1. Whatever happened to those half dozen Buckley biopics that were being made?

  2. I heard someone describe Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah as cheesy or something like that. I wanted to punch him in the mouth.

  3. It might just be me but this one hasn’t aged quite as grace-fully as I would’ve hoped it would.

    Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.

    • I’ve found the opposite to be true. Revisiting it this week, I’ve been more impressed by this album than ever.

    • No I agree with blochead. There are moments that are really strong, but at times it sounds like Live. As in the band Live.

      I think it’s an album of its time that shows lots of promise and occasionally knocks it out of the park, but since that promise couldn’t be fulfilled, we have allowed this album to carry the “classic” mantle.

    • Boooooo! :-) But seriously, this album is still great to my ears.

      • honestly it’s a “to each his own” moment. But to my blessed ears it feels a bit like standard rock n roll stuff. His voice is so overwhelmingly great it cloaks that a bit.

        But if you love it….good on ya’. I still listen to it.

        • I think Carson nailed it. If Buckley hadn’t died he could’ve undoubtedly made a better record. Sort of sad to think about it.

          • I know it’s weird to suggest he would have done what his dad did, but he might have had it in him to do some incredibly experimental and weird stuff. Tim’s “Starsailor” is still one of the weirdest (and most kickass) albums I’ve ever heard.

        • Define “standard rock n roll stuff.”

  4. The Live at Sin-E EP was released during his lifetime. In fact, it was released before Grace. Also, the Legacy Edition of Sin-E may in fact be a better album than Grace. That’s neither here nor there, because Grace will always stand as the work that’s he’s most known for.

    I remember seeing Last Goodbye on Mtv in the wee hours of the morning during a time when I’d moved far away from “home” after breaking up with the love of my life… it rocked me to the core. Just destroyed me. Went and bought the CD the next day and wore it out. Listened to it a few times a week for a couple years.

    Over the years I’ve found many other people who had similar experiences, which is nice. There seems to be very few casual listeners where Grace is concerned. Plenty of people are aware of it, but as far as listening goes it’s more than likely a part of your being, or something that you passed on. That’s my experience with it, anyway.

    I was, of course, devastated when he died, made worse by the fact that we’ll never know exactly what happened. I’d been following closely any bit of news I could get on what he was up to, who he was working with, when the new album was going to be released, etc. Grace is such a personal album for me that I kind of lose my word at this point. I feel like I should be able to wax eloquent about what his music meant and what a great loss his death was… but I just can’t. It made me sad… still does sometimes when I listen to one of my favorites from him.

    Hard for me to say much more than that….

    That Legacy Edition of Live at Sin-E, though… can’t recommend it enough. I also have an albums worth of favorites from Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, too. I can see a lot of promise in some of those tracks. It’s a shame he never got the chance to realize it.

    • Live at Sin-E may be my all-time live album. I think my favorite part is during Yeh Jo Halka Saroor Hai when the audience goes from giggling about his singing in Pakistani (?) to clearly being blown away by his vocal talents.

      And those Nina Simone covers? Good god they are amazing. Strange Fruit is a powerful song to begin with and he just elevates it.

  5. How about Morning Theft? what a beautiful song.

  6. “That guy from Ours.” Jimmy Gnecco! Every bit the impressive Buckley clone that Matt Bellamy is (or was?) the Bends-era Thom Yorke clone.

    Anyway, I discovered Grace at 18 (in 2002) and was quite the Buckley-obsessed young man for a couple of years. Spent much of my first half of college scouring the web for just about anything of his that was ever recorded. For what it’s worth, I think his best work were the songs completed just before his death – The Sky is a Landfill, Witches’ Rave, and Haven’t You Heard really hint that he was onto something special. I try not to romanticize his death at all. It’s pretty much one of the shittier things to ever happen in music.

    I maintain that there hasn’t been a talent quite like him since. And it’s not the just the voice – it’s also the songwriting, the inventive approach to the guitar, the soul, his band. He owned it on every level.

  7. “Jeff Buckley would have slayed on American Idol.”

    Chris, I guess congratulations and cigars are in order! Anyway, I hear being a grandma is great! You get to spoil’em while their parents do all the hard work! Is “Grace” on your Pinterest page yet?

  8. that guy from ours has a name all you had to do was look it up. its jimmy gnecco and he is not british

  9. Don’t forget, Stereogum: September 27 is a day to remember Bananaphone. Skip that one and there’s going to be trouble.

  10. I got into Jeff relatively late, like 5/6 years ago, but he has been my absolute favorite (although I do remember Grace being played on the radio 20 years ago). I am glad that I was able to turn some people on to him. Jeff truly deserves all the love in the world.

    There is no one that can come close to Jeff (sorry, Chris Cornell). For me, Jeff can make me cry and fall in love at the same time. He just does that to me. I often wonder what the world would be like if he was alive. I honestly believe that he would have had a career that was golden.

    Grace is truly an epic album. I am so grateful for the legacy he has left us. RIP Jeff.

  11. dg15  |   Posted on Aug 22nd +3

    When he lets loose on “Grace” it’s some of the most beautifully bone chilling singing I’ve ever heard. Such a killer song.

  12. Dumbest opening sentence.

  13. I usually sneak “Love You Should’ve Come Over” on playlists I make for woman. That song is devastating.

  14. 2003. Going through a break up. found Grace and fell in love with it. bought Live at Sin-e and loved him even more. tripped on mushrooms and someone told me he already died years ago. I lost it and sobbed the whole night. I couldn’t believe it.

  15. Wolf River.

  16. This album … man, this album.
    As much as I love his version of Hallelujah, Lover, You Should Have Come Over is my favourite song on Grace.
    Thanks to Jeff for getting me into Cohen as well.
    As a side note, I listened to two older “music fans” talk at work the other day about the Rolling Stones, Dylan, and Buckley, and were very disparaging about Grace. Said it was mostly covers and not very good ones. I was shaking with anger in my seat.

    • Lover, You Should Have Come Over is my hands down absolute favorite song in the world. I can be listening to this song and just break down crying because it is so damn beautiful.

  17. POWERFUL…i rank it right behind OK Computer as the 2nd best album of the 90s…most tragic loss in music history, period.

  18. I’ve been listening to this album for about 12 years and it gets better every single time I play it.

    He was an exceptional human being and I wish he was still here.

  19. Brad Pitt described him best:

    Both Paige and Plant in one.

  20. Mojo Pin rules

  21. This album is perfect. No question about it. It plays on every emotion, tugs on every heart string, and hits you with such raw power. “Dream Brother” is always what gets me. That and “Lover” are two of my favorites on there.

    Speaking of “Dream Brother”, I highly recommend the book of that title about Jeff and his dad Tim. It’s eerie how similar their lives were in so many ways.

    One more thing (and Scott, maybe you’ll appreciate this), but I love his “Back in NYC” Genesis cover on his posthumous release.

  22. I love this story: Jeff and Chris were big admirers of each others work. When Chris went on solo tour in 2011, Chris had a red phone on stage. That red phone belonged to Jeff and was given to Chris by Jeff’s mom after he passed away. I guess he kept it just in case Jeff called. Yes, I’m getting a little choked up typing this.

  23. “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” is my favorite song on the album, and then probably “Hallelujah” , but I want to give a shout out here to the one you never hear about, “Corpus Christi Carol”. It’s got a neat, haunted quality and was one of the things that made me reconsider Arthurian legend and that era.

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