Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Grace," by Jeff Buckley

Jeff Buckley’s 1994 debut and only studio album, Grace, is one of the most beautiful, rocking albums I’ve ever heard. Grace is also a heartbreaking album, and what proved tragic for Buckley, prophetic. Jeff Buckley died in 1997, three years after the album’s release. He drowned in the Mississippi River while a friend watched, unknowing, just a few, helpless feet away. Buckley was the son of folk-rock legend, Tim Buckley, who also died in his prime at the young age of 28, when Jeff was just 9 years old. The elder Buckley died of a horrifying drug overdose, also while friends watched and did nothing.

The overarching theme of Jeff Buckley’s, Grace, is this: despair over loss. Loss of love. Loss of hope. Loss of life. The opening line to the title track (and my favorite song on the album) brings home this message early in the song cycle:

Well it's my time coming, I'm not afraid to die
My fading voice sings of love,
But she cries to the clicking of time… of time

The title track, “Grace,” continues, forecasting Buckley’s sad fate:

The rain is falling and I believe
My time has come
It reminds me of the pain
I might leave… leave behind
And I feel them drown my name
So easy to know and forget with this kiss
I'm not afraid to go, but it goes so slow

And the final, haunting line of the album, on “Dream Brother,” where Buckley sings,

Dream brother, dream brother, dream, dream
dream asleep in the sand with the ocean washing over…

But the album is much more than uncanny future-casting of the artist’s ill fate, Grace contains some of rock-and-roll’s most stupefying and transcendent musical moments, recorded by an artist who communicated familiar emotions through his own innovative, and highly original lens. Buckley transcends standard rock clichés by infusing themes of heartache and loss with his own, unique lyrical vision. Buckley examines relationships from the inside out, leaving no relational stone unturned on this perfect, poetic album.

Grace also includes the 1995 hit single and song most closely associated with Buckley, “Last Goodbye.” The album further contains what most agree to be the definitive version of Leonard Cohen’s classic hymn to love, “Hallelujah,” which, incidentally, went on to become Buckley’s only number one song to date, shooting to the pole position of “Billboard” magazine’s “Hot Digital Songs” chart in the spring of 2008, the day after Buckley’s version was covered by a contestant on “American Idol.”

The instruments on Grace that frame Buckley’s celestial voice: the majestic strings, the blasting guitars, and the crashing drums, are staggering in themselves, sounding as fresh and relevant today as if they had been recorded last week. But Buckley’s most important gift to the world was that angelic, mournful, raw, and, at times, startling voice. Buckley’s voice could summon emotions from the depths of his lower register, and in one perfect instant, fling them into a high-octave, tortured howl. Buckley’s voice was versatile and explosive, able to convey acute heartache, yet also to rouse the most joyous sounds, seeming both otherworldly and even unvoice-like.

While its joys and potency loom large, making this classic album destined to be remembered forever, I only listen to Grace when I’m alone. It’s not exactly a record to play when entertaining guests or when doing dinner dishes. It’s the kind of beautiful, jarring musical journey that, like Buckley’s short life, is best experienced when you have time to feel your way through it.

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