In 1997, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley took an evening swim in the Mississippi River. Few simple desires have ended in such tragedy; Buckley was caught in the wake of a passing boat, and drowned. He was 30 years old.
Friends and fans still mourn the loss of this unique musician, and his legacy lives on in his small but perfect collection of recordings. Grace, released in 1994, is the only complete studio album Buckley recorded, and wasn’t initially considered a commercial success. To date, the album has sold over 2 million copies worldwide, and an extended version was released to celebrate its tenth anniversary in 2004.
Associate Editor Kate Crudgington was only four years old when Grace was originally released, so she’s a bit late to the Jeff Buckley appreciation party; but she remembers the first time she heard the record, and has shared her experience below…
“I love you, but I’m afraid to love you…” sings Jeff Buckley on ‘So Real’, my favourite track from his 1994 studio album, Grace. The intensity and emotional accuracy of Buckley’s lyricism, and his idiosyncratic vocals make listening to the record a bitter sweet experience; but it’s one I’ve happily been repeating since I heard the album for the first time in 2011.
I was twenty-one, and I was sitting in my (ex) boyfriend’s bedroom, when he plucked Grace from his CD rack. Twenty seconds in to opening track ‘Mojo Pin’, I was captivated by Buckley’s sound (not to mention his charming face on the album’s cover). It pained me to learn he’d drowned swimming in the Mississippi River in 1997. Since his untimely death, his fame and volume of fans has escalated, and I am now one of thousands who cite Grace as one of their favourite records.
Some good friends bought the vinyl for me for my twenty-fourth birthday, and I usually turn to it on Sunday afternoons when I need distracting from a hangover. ‘Mojo Pin’ is “precious, precious, silver and gold”, and eponymous second track ‘Grace’ is also musical treasure. Similar to ‘Grace’, third track ‘Last Goodbye’ has a rolling, up-beat rhythm; belying the recognition that “it’s over” between Buckley and his sweetheart. Few parting words are as kind as his – “You gave me more to live for, more than you’ll ever know” – and the themes of finality are softened by his tenderness.
There are three covers on the album, and ‘Lilac Wine’ is my favourite of the trio. Originally written in 1950 by James Shelton, and covered by other artists including Elkie Brooks (and Miley Cyrus?), Buckley’s treatment of Shelton’s classic is intoxicating. His controlled, melancholy vocals make me feel as “unsteady” as the liquid he sings about, and his delivery of the following verses often brings a tear to my lilac-tinted eyes:
“I made wine from a lilac tree,
Put my heart in its recipe.
Makes me see what I want to see,
and be what I want to be.
I think more than I want to think,
Do things I never should do.
I drink much more than I ought to drink,
Because it brings me back you…”
A few years ago, I quietly claimed Buckley’s ‘Lilac Wine’ as my choice of wedding song (don’t worry, I’m cringing too). My desire to be bonded in matrimony has burned out since then, but ‘Lilac Wine’ is a deeply romantic, beautiful tune which I’d gladly slow dance to, if the occasion presented itself.
ANYWAY – as if I wasn’t emotional enough, ‘Lilac Wine’ leads in to the poignant ‘So Real’. The painful pleasure Buckley obtains from the memory of the “smell” and “fabric” of his lover’s “simple city dress…”, and his recognition of the universal childhood superstition – “I never stepped on the cracks, ‘cos I thought I’d hurt my Mother” – strike my heartstrings whenever I hear them. The contrast of the visceral, distorted guitar breakdown also superbly reflects Buckley’s frustrated passion. Basically; I love everything about this track.
‘Hallelujah’ is the second, most iconic cover on Grace, and was originally written and recorded by Leonard Cohen in 1984. Buckley’s version is a heavenly, heart-cracking seven minutes of music which my sentences can’t accurately articulate, so I’ll be moving swiftly on to the seventh track; ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’. If any former romantic flame called me up and played this down the phone, I would not hesitate to rekindle the previously extinguished fire (well, anyone except you – don’t ever call me again). My romantic logic clearly stems from being “Too young to hold on, but too old to just break free and run”, but it’s hard to resist Buckley’s lamentation –“It’s never over, my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder” – it’s enough to make any girl tremble with indecision.
‘Corpus Christi Carol’ is the third and final cover on Grace, and it’s as celestial as it sounds. I’m an atheist, but Buckley’s cover of this British hymn sounds like proof of a higher power. He is blessed with such powerful, yet delicate vocals; effortlessly mastering changes in pitch and holding notes for the perfect amount of time.
After so many intensely emotional tracks, it’s cathartic to hear the heavier, alternative guitar sound on ‘Eternal Life’, before the final track* ‘Dream Brother’ sends me in to another troubled, beautiful trance. Buckley wrote the song for a friend who was on the verge of abandoning his pregnant girlfriend, which poignantly mirrors the behaviour of Jeff’s father, singer-songwriter; Tim Buckley. Along with ‘So Real’, I consider this one of my favourite songs of all time, and love how the guitar is equal parts energetic and anaesthetising. Buckley’s delicate balance of fear and passion is executed to perfection once more in his lyricism -“I feel afraid and I call your name, I love your voice and your dance insane” – and by the time the track’s finished playing; I’m emotionally spent.
The romantic quality of his lyricism, coupled with the crushing reality of the brevity of his life makes listening to Jeff Buckley’s Grace an incredibly moving, powerfully reflective experience; and I blissfully endure the emotional comedown when the record stops spinning, every time.
*On some versions of the album, ‘Dream Brother’ is the penultimate track on Grace, and ‘Forget Her’ is the closing song.