There’s an interview out there on the internet, a video of Jeff Buckley talking to a French music journalist. During the interview, the journalist asks Buckley what he thinks about the success of his debut album, ‘Grace,’ in France.
“GRACE!” he intones, like a radio announcer on speed “It’s unanimous! Duh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh….”
It’s a moment of self-mockery, a moment that Buckley fans (or critics) could read in a number of ways. Now that Buckley is gone, the temptation to engage in amateur posthumous psychoanalysis is great.
Did Jeff Buckley truly not know how great he was? Was he the sort of person destined to never be satisfied with his own work? Was he a perfectionist? Was he simply bothered by the commercialization of his art? Did he always play games with the press? Was he being self-effacing in order to get into the journalist’s knickers?
A trip down that path can be endless. I take that trip sometimes, and then I realize I’m just trying to bring Buckley back. Because I want more of him, more of his music. I will always want more.
Since I missed ‘Live at Sine’ when it first came out, my initial exposure to Jeff Buckley was the studio perfection of his debut full-length album, ‘Grace.’
‘Grace’ was recorded and released in that strange time between the heyday of rock & roll and the digital revolution. It never had a chance to “go viral” because in 1994, when ‘Grace’ was first released, “going viral” wasn’t even a thing. Streaming music did not exist. Musical artists did not have to concern themselves with maintaining a social media presence.
When I personally discovered ‘Grace,’ I was studying music in college, thinking I wanted to major in it. At that time, I was spending at least four hours a day practicing the piano. I was singing in choir. I was taking music theory, and ear training. I was surrounded by other musicians. All of us were focusing on either classical music or jazz (but quite a few of us – guys especially – also played in rock bands.) So I was living and breathing in an atmosphere where technique, good meter, and a sophisticated (or in my case, decent) understanding of music fundamentals was essential. Not just essential, but valued.
So that’s the headspace I was in when I first heard ‘Grace,’ and the album spoke the musical language I was learning. We had just sung Benjamin Britten’s “A Boy Was Born” in choir, so the fact that Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol” was included on ‘Grace’ gave the album a special resonance for me. And of course, there was the musicianship: impeccable technique: check. Creative, intelligent chord progressions: check. Breaking the mold of the 4/4 time signature: check. But there was more than that. There was something else I heard, in the midst of all the studio perfection. I suppose suckers would call it soul. Soul was there, in spades.
Now, when I want to listen to Jeff Buckley, I hunt for live recordings. Legitimate, bootleg, I don’t care. I want to hear Buckley playing live. I love to hear the way he keeps going, even when he makes mistakes. (He was a phenomenal talent, but like anyone who has ever stood up on a real stage and played an instrument/sung in real time, he makes mistakes.) I want to hear Buckley play live, because I want to hear him take risks. Jeff Buckley was the king of taking risks while playing live. Live recordings of Buckley also show that he had an impish and robust sense of humor.
The risk-taking and the humor are harder to discern on ‘Grace,’ especially if you listen to the original August 23, 1994 release. (The ‘Grace’ Legacy Edition, released in 2004, includes more material and gives hints of the improvisational nature of Buckley and his band, as well as providing glimpses of his sense of humor.) The first release of ‘Grace’ was made to introduce a “great artist” to the world: “Here’s Jeff Buckley, look how many different things he can do.” ‘Grace’ succeeds on that level. But it transcends that level, too. From the hushed and eerie intro of “Mojo Pin,” to the soaring chorus of “Last Goodbye;” from Buckley’s lush version of “Lilac Wine” to his now iconic cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah;” and from the sweet, moonstruck sexiness of “So Real” to the hypnotic closing track, “Dream Brother,” ‘Grace’ is an urgent, intense love letter to the listener – and maybe to music itself.
There will never be another album like it.