Thursday, August 27, 2009

Top Ten Albums - #10: Grace, by Jeff Buckley

Year released: 1994


Mojo Pin -Grace - Last Goodbye - Lilac Wine - So Real - Hallelujah - Lover, You Should Have Come Over - Corpus Christi Carol (For Roy) - Eternal Life - Dream Brother

I had this album for years before I really got it -- really, before I even gave it an honest chance. Back in those 90s alt-rock days before you could download singles and you had to buy a whole CD just to get one song, I picked this up in Savannah, Georgia on the strength of "Last Goodbye," the lone radio / MTV song. "Last Goodbye," with its dreamy-mournful slide and string break, was orchestrated like few radio songs I'd heard to that point, and all about swoony sacrifice and heartbreak. Having made a complete fool of myself romantically around that time, the song struck a deep chord and took me away to a place where I fantasized that I could actually turn the tables -- instead of the rejected, I could recast the whole overwrought scenario and become the rejector: "oh, you know it makes me so angy / 'cause I know that in time / I'd only make you cry / this is our last goodbye."

But the rest of the album? Too ethereal, too falsetto, just too far outside the accustomed rock album template for me at the time. Minimalist guitar, little percussion, the primary instrument was that voice of Buckley's, which even though I knew was amazing in its own right, I still couldn't fully appreciate.

When I heard about Buckley's death just a few years later, I recalled that I had the album somewhere, but I didn't go back to it then, or even for a few years afterward. It was actually the events of September 11, 2001 and a Leonard Cohen cover that unlocked the rest of it for me.

Some of the video montages that sprang up in the wake of 9/11 were scored to Buckley's version of Cohen's "Hallelujah," and while I'm not that familiar with Cohen's version -- I've only heard clips of it, I think, most recently during the movie Watchmen--I feel safe in saying that Buckley's cover outstrips the original quite handily. Cohen's lyrics are close enough to genius to endure, but when matched with Buckley's delivery, they border on incomparable. Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah," with its single lonely breath-intro and that cold, chiming guitar with a bridge that climbs away into the night like a fading memory, describes all of the beauty and sadness that come with lovestruck despair so fully that it becomes the song itself, one of those covers that so fully transforms and transcends the original--a la Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower"--that it is, in essence, the definitive version of the material.

Beauty and sadness - that's the whole album boiled down, really--largely contrasting ideas, here inseparable. And in the world that Buckley paints, it couldn't and shouldn't be any other way.

Key Tracks:

2. "Grace" - almost unnerving to hear Buckley, who died at only 28, sing "it's my time coming / I'm not afraid / afraid to die."

3. "Last Goodbye"

6. "Hallelujah"

9. "Eternal Life" - the album's most rocking track, and, per Buckley himself, an tribute to Led Zeppelin.

10. "Dream Brother" - combines with "Eternal Life" to close Grace on an up-tempo (if not upbeat) note, bringing guitar and drums closer to the fore, even letting them bear the load for much of the song's midsection.

Although a fairly significant archival material exists -- including much of the album that was in the works when he died, along with numerous outtakes and live material -- Grace is the primary output of Jeff Buckley's career. It's cold comfort, but ten years after his passing, worth noting to say that many lives have gone much longer without even approaching the highs that Buckely scaled with this one indelible collection of songs.

Next: #9 - Radiohead, The Bends

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