The Album List: #57 Jeff Buckley “Grace”

God damn, he was a bit purty, too.

This is a story about an album I listened to only one time in late 1994, then promptly ignored for a decade before I listened to it again and fell in love.

See, the much praised cover of  Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” irritated me at the time. I never like Cohen’s own very 80s arrangement. But I did, however, love John Cale’s icy 1991 version that appeared on the Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan ( also a highlight- the Pixies doing “I Can’t Forget” and Nick Cave singing “Tower of Song”). I thought Buckley, by taking the Cale version and adding real emotion to it, ruined the damn song. I was seventeen, a Velvet Underground fan, I had just spent weeks listening to Cale’s Paris 1919 album and was convinced it would forever be among my top 100 albums.

Yeah, about that. Sorry, John Cale. It’s not anymore. It is in the top 200…

I was too busy in 1994 being sad and angry and mopey to be really in love with the sweetness of Buckley’s voice. I was still recovering from Kurt Cobain’s death, I wanted music to rage to. Buckley’s angelic voice and hymn-like songs were the antithesis of the music I was loving at the moment. Then he died, and he became a trendy artist, in my mind. Everyone suddenly thought he was the second coming of Nick Drake. No one is the second coming of Nick Drake. Knock it off.

2004 proved to be a year, though, where I needed something different. I gave Grace a second spin, and promptly decided that a) Jeff Buckley is awesome, and b) I really need to get over myself. I have always maintained good music is good music, no matter who brings you the song. I have used this to defend my love of Take That, the Backstreet Boys “I Want It That Way”, and most of the crap I listened t in the 1980s. It’s a good rule to have, but I admit not always following it.  Buckley’s amazing voice remains one of the single greatest voices in the past thirty years, and the seventies inspired touches in the music feel natural and comfortable. He is the successor to Nick Drake, if Drake had lived and plugged in.

The album has become on of my most played in the last seven years. Maybe motherhood mellowed me out. Maybe I just needed to take a step back and remind myself that I need to stop being a pretentious bitch, and that Buckley was a huge Smiths fan, which means he is one of my musical soul mates.

Of course, most of Buckley’s current reputation is based on his cover of “Hallelujah”. Cohen wrote it and it’s rumoured ninety verses, Cale solidified the current arrangement, but it was Buckley who made the song the anthem it is today ( anthem may be the wrong word here, but I am at a loss to describe the evolution of the song from cheesy 80s shit through to the current go to song in times of tragedy- aside from the fact people seem to ignore the lyrics, which are all about sex). I have included all three important early versions here to prove the point.

Buckley’s version was revived off the back of Shrek, and the now constant use of the song in those musical singing reality talent show things that I love but am currently angry with. Of the three, Cale’s remains my favourite, but Buckley’s is probably better, as it’s less detached and lovelier in its use of melody. Also, Buckley is a far, far better singer than either Cohen or Cale.

Buckley’s best known original composition is the beautiful “Last Goodbye”. It was the biggest hit he had in his lifetime, and its acoustic guitar-fiddle interplay is simply fantastic. The song is occasionally punctured with his sweet falsetto, and it remains a perfect song. Soaring choruses, grand gesture musical touches, and that voice makes thing more amazing than I originally thought.

But the song that impresses me the most remains the version of “Corpus Christi Carol” he sings towards the end of the record. Done completely with his falsetto, accompanied merely with his guitar, like “Hallelujah”, the song dates back to before Shakespeare’s time ( music and history remain my two great loves in life). Buckley went with the Benjamin Britten arrangement from 1933 ( also exquisite) and to a geek like me, it is musical mana from heaven.

I admit I prefer the quieter moments- “Hallelujah”, “Corpus Christi Carol”, “Lilac Wine”- to the louder and more raucous songs like “Eternal Life” and “Mojo Pin”. He was suited for folk-jazz mid tempo laments and sad ballads. He might be able to pull of Robert Plant vocally, but it feels inauthentic. I think “Eternal Life” is a weak moment on a pretty strong record. But as it stands, nearly twenty years after it first was released, it is an album that continues to grow on me, and it still feels new and exciting after constant rotation for seven years. I’d like to see Matthew Sweet pull that off.


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