One thing that Matt Corby said during our interview stuck with me- his claim that Jeff Buckley will remain ‘unrivalled’. Due to his tragic death at the age of just 30 and the legacy that he managed to inspire from such a short career, I suspect there are a great amount of people who agree with this postulation; there is something strangely endearing about artists dying young, the gnawing thought of ‘what if?’. To see whether Buckley will really remain unsurpassed, I turned to his seminal album ‘Grace’.
Some of the songs on ‘Grace’ are beautiful. ‘Lover, you should’ve come over’ is my ‘song’ of the album, documenting perfectly the yearning of an unappeased lover (a recurring theme of ‘Grace’). The lyrics ‘too young to hold on, and too old to just break free and run’ crooned over arpeggiated chords ring undoubtedly true in the minds of more than would care to admit it. It is a brilliant song. ‘Last Goodbye’ is also great, and was the most popular song on the album at its time of release, being snapped up by MTV. It’s evident why this was; its alt-rock tone was desirable during the post-grunge era into which bands like ‘The Smashing Pumpkins’ were to erupt.
Track 6, ‘Hallelujah’ is the song that people most associate with Buckley: it is omnipresent, not least in TV shows such as ‘The O.C.’ and ‘House’, but also in the fact that it is this version of Cohen’s song, not the original, that is constantly revisited when other artists attempt to make it their own. It was Buckley’s version that surged up the Charts in late 2008, a ploy by fans of the late musician to stop Alexandra Burke’s ‘Hallelujah’ claiming the Christmas #1 position. In my opinion, only Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘Hurt’ comes close to such a cult following; Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’ makes Leonard Cohen’s original seem clumsy by comparison, and will definitely remain ‘unrivalled’.
There is a lot more to ‘Grace’ than this track though, a fact that so many people seem blissfully content to ignore. Jeff Buckley tries his hand at further interpretations, such as James Shelton’s ‘Lilac Wine’, a soothing and easy-listening piece of music. He also covers ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ (a 16th Century hymn), a seemingly odd choice, but a pretty revolutionary one for a modern artist (Sting has used the lute in more recent years). Also, when looking at the eclectic mix of genres on ‘Grace’ it is not entirely out of place, and I guess is supposed to lull us into a false sense of security before we are ‘smashed’ with the next song, the rock anthem ‘Eternal Life’.
Sadly, this is not the rock ‘n’ roll smashing of hotel rooms and guitars that Buckley hoped to provide, but rather a smashing of any hope I had of the album being perfect. He clearly was not made to sing this sort of music, and sounds like nothing more than a weakened Brandon Boyd in trying to do so, despite Rolling Stone claiming that he ‘upends Led Zeppelin’ on the track. His misguided attempt to foray into rock also serves to provide the sad point at which the album begins to fall flat.
It is easy during the next song, ‘Dream Brother’, to become aware of your wondering of where the song is going during one of its many musical digressions, which does not deliver a final product. ‘Forget Her’ is similar, another waltzing, melancholy and ultimately boring ode to a lost girl that suggests to me that Jeff and his producers should have tried to mix the musical themes up a bit. It would be easy to cut the last 3-4 songs and be left with an almost perfect album; sadly, these last few tracks blight what was an amazing collection of music. Is it fair to say that Jeff Buckley will remain unrivalled when for all its promise, his seminal album peters out at the end? All credit to the man for experimenting with different genres, but gold medals aren’t given out for ‘trying’.
‘Grace’ is almost fantastic, it is a prototype of greater things to come, but obviously we were not permitted to see what these greater things were. I must admit that I came to ‘Grace’ expecting a life-changing experience due to the hype and the quality of songs that I had previously heard from it. Instead I was left with a sour taste in my mouth as the tragedy of unfulfilled talent was made so apparent on the album; it is not perfect, and this is one of the reasons why it did not have an immediate impact on musical culture. However, in many places it is beautiful, and Jeff Buckley might have been totally ‘unrivalled’ had he lived. But, in the words of John Greenleaf Whittier, ‘For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been’.
Aside from the few great songs, the most notable thing about the album is the legacy that it left behind, those such as Matt Corby and Alexander Ebert who now carry the flame for the long-haired, windswept singer-songwriter in all of us.
By Daniel Hatton