Twenty years ago, Jeff Buckley released the one and only album of his career, Grace. Jeff was the son of  Tim Buckley, one of the most talented singer-songwriters of his generation. Tim could’ve and should’ve enjoyed widespread commercial success and critical acclaim. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Having released nine albums between 1966 and 1974, Tim died in 1975. He was only twenty-eight. Sadly, Tim never got to the opportunity to realise his potential. Tragically, history would repeat itself twenty-two years later.

Originally, Jeff played in various struggling bands. After that, he worked as a session guitar. Then in 1990, Jeff decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. Just like his father Tim, it became apparent that Jeff Buckley was a talented singer-songwriter. Four years later, Jeff Buckley released his debut album Grace. Released to widespread critical acclaim, Grace was a  stunning and successful debut album. A great future was forecast for Jeff. Sadly, tragedy intervened in Jeff Buckley’s life.

On 29th May 1997 Jeff was in based in Memphis, where he was in the process of recording his sophomore album. He was awaiting the arrival of his band. With nothing to do, Jeff decided to go for a swim in the Wolf River. Having dived fully clothed into the river, Jeff was caught in the wake of a passing boat. Various attempts were made to rescue Jeff. These attempts were in vain. It wasn’t until 5th June 2014, that Jeff Buckley’s body was recovered. That day, music lost one of  its most potentially talented sons. Jeff Buckley’s musical legacy was his only album Grace, which will be rereleased by Sony BMG on 15th September 2014. This twentieth anniversary edition of Grace includes both a vinyl and CD version of Grace,  Jeff Buckley’s opus. Before I tell about Grace, I’ll tell you about Jeff Buckley’s life.

Jeff Buckley was born on November 17th 1966, in Anaheim, California. Although the son of Tim Buckley and Mary Guibert, he was brought up as Scotty Moorhead. He was brought up by his mother and stepfather. During his childhood, he was steeped in music. His mother was a classically trained musician, playing cello and piano. Tim Buckley, his father, was a successful singer-songwriter. However, it was his stepfather, Ron Moorhead who introduced Jeff to artists like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppilin, Pink Floyd and Queen. He had started playing guitar aged five, and by thirteen, owned his first electric guitar. During high school, he played music, even playing in the school jazz band.

On graduating from high school, he spent a year at the Musician’s Institute, graduating aged nineteen. This course taught him about music theory and harmonies. After this, he spent six years playing guitar in various bands. Their style of music ranged from rock to reggae, and jazz to heavy metal. To make ends meet, he worked in a hotel during this time. He also worked as a session musician, playing in funk and R&B sessions. 

In February 1990, Jeff moved to New York. Once settled in New York, he found it hard to get work as a musician. Whilst there, his musical tastes widened. He became interested in blues musician Robert Johnson’s music, hardcore punk band Bad Brains and Qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s work in particular. It was whilst in New York that Jeff got his next major break in music. His late father’s manager Herb Cohen, offered to help Jeff record a demo tape. This was called the Babylon Dungeon Sessions. The idea was to attract interest in Buckley as a solo artist.

This worked. The Babylon Dungeon Sessions brought Jeff’s music to the attention of a wider audience. Soon, word spread that Tim Buckley’s son was a talented singer-songwriter. However, although Babylon Dungeon Sessions had been a success, Jeff was still looking for that elusive “big break.” It came when Jeff was asked to sing at a 1991, tribute show to his father Tim in New York.

At that tribute concert in New York, Jeff performed one of his father’s classic songs I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain. His performance at the concert stimulated interest in his career. At last, his music career was going somewhere. For the next couple of years, he played numerous gigs around New York, where he honed his skills as a musician. During his concerts, he would play a wide range of material. In his sets he would play covers of everything from Edith Piaf to The Smiths and Led Zeppelin to Leonard Cohen. After a while, he started attracting interest from major record labels. Eventually, he signed to Columbia Records, signing a three album deal, worth roughly one million dollars in October 1992. In July and August 1993, he headed to the studio, to record his debut EP Live At Sin-e. 

Midway through 1993, he began working on his debut album Grace. It featured ten tracks. Three were written by Jeff,  Last Goodbye, Lover, You Should’ve Come Over and Eternal Life. He cowrote Mojo Pin and Grace with Gary Lucas, and So Real with Michael Tighe.  Dream Brother was the other track Jeff cowrote Matt Johnson and Mick Grondahl. The other three tracks were cover versions. They were James Shelton’s Lilac Wine, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Benjamin Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol. These ten tracks would become Grace.

For Grace, Jeff put together a tight, talented band. The rhythm section included drummer and vibes player Matt Johnson, bassist Mick Grondahl and guitarists Michael Tighe and Gary Lucas. Other musicians included organist Loris Holland and Misha Masud on tabla. Jeff played guitar, harmonium, organ, dulcimer and tabla. The sessions were produced by Andy Wallace, who previously, had mixed Nirvana’s Nevermind album. After a few weeks practice, the band headed to Bearsville Studios, in Woodstock, New York. They spend six weeks recording parts of Grace. Overdubbing took place in New York and Manhattan. It was there, that Jeff Buckley recorded numerous takes of his vocals, attempting to achieve perfection.

Between finishing the recording and overdubbing sessions for Grace, and its release in August 1994, Jeff Buckley headed out on the road to tour his EP, Live At Sin-e.  His tour was a huge success, with many well known musicians taking in Jeff’s shows. This would include Chrissie Hynde of The Pretender and U2’s The Edge. With such high profile names accompanying him, this created a buzz for the release of Grace.

When Grace was released in August 1994, it was critically acclaimed. The great and good of music all queued up to praise the album. Luminaries such as Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and David Bowie all loved Grace, and widely praised it. Rolling Stone magazine loved the album, and have included it in their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Sales started slowly, and eventually, Grace stalled at number 149 in the US Billboard 200 and number forty-four in Britain. This was disappointing, considering the reviews Grace received. Since then Grace has been certified gold in Australia, France and the US. However, it was very different back in 1994.

After the release of Grace, Buckley spent the next eighteen months touring the album. Wherever he played, he was a sell out. After all the years he’d struggled to make ends meet, Jeff was suddenly a huge star. After the tour ended in 1996, he prepared to write his next album. This was entitled Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk. Tom Verlaine ex-member of Television was to produce the album. Several recordings took place, and after a recording session in Manhattan, Buckley was still not happy with the album. To him, the album wasn’t finished yet. He played a few new songs at The Knitting Factory’s tenth anniversary concert. After that, he decided to head to Easley McCain Recording studios in Memphis, to work on his album. He hired a house, and became so attached to it, that he asked the owner’s if he could buy it. Whilst there, he even played a number of concerts at local venues. However, the album wasn’t going well, Buckley wasn’t happy with Tom Verlaine as producer, and contacted Andy Wallace, producer of his first album, Grace. In preparation for the arrival of Andy Wallace, Jeff recorded some demos and sent them to Andy Wallace. 

Whilst his band returned to New York, Buckley stayed behind to work on the album. His band arrived back in Memphis on May 29th 1997. They were going to join him in the studio to see some new material he’d been working on. That night, Buckley decided to go swimming in Wolf River Harbor, part of the Mississippi. He entered the river fully clothed. A member of his road crew watched his swim. He’d swam there before. The roadie turned, and moved a guitar and radio out of the reach of the wake of a tug-boat, that was about to pass. When he turned round, Jeff Buckley was gone, nowhere to be seen. Tragedy had struck. Sadly, after a long search that night, there was no sign of Buckley. Then on June 5th, two local residents found Jeff Buckley’s body. He was thirty years of age. That day, music lost one of its a hugely talented singer-songwriter.

Since his death, Jeff Buckley’s music is more popular than ever. A number of live albums, greatest hits and Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk have been released since his death. His music is still attracting new fans, and his debut album Grace, is widely recognized as an outstanding album, one of the best albums of the 1990s’ I will now tell you just why Grace is such an outstanding album.

Grace opens with Mojo Pin, a song that starts quietly, the sound distant, gradually getting nearer. When it does, Jeff Buckley’s vocal emerges, soaring high at first, then dropping almost to a whisper. His hesitancy could be because he’s singing about  a dream. Behind him the track meanders gently, before opening out, becoming louder and fuller. As this happens, Jeff’s voice veers between high and low. His range is wide, his voice full of character. You get the impression he’s holding himself back, and any minute he could launch into a vocal thats loud and passionate. It happens. He almost screams, but gathers control. The same can’t be said of his band, they really let go and unleash a wall of glorious sound. Mojo Pin is a dichotomy of a track, one minute quiet, gentle, with Buckley sounding thoughtful, the next his voice soars, he nearly screams, joining the band in an almost explosive crescendo. It’s a powerful track, one that demonstrates Jeff Buckley’s considerable talent as a vocalist.

The introduction to the title-track, Grace sees a change in tack from Jeff and his band. Grace is based upon an instrumental Rise Up to Be, which was penned by Gary Lucas. Jeff added the lyrics after saying goodbye to his girlfriend at an airport. Straight away, the sound is full, the tempo faster. When Buckley sings his voice is softer, he articulates the lyrics perfectly, bringing out the beauty in the lyrics. It’s one of his best performances on the album. His band play really well, the guitars particularly are a highlight of the track. Later in the track, Jeff adds beautiful harmonies. Then later, his voice is much stronger, he really lets go, forces the high notes to emerge. When he does, his band join in, upping the tempo, the sound getting louder, nearly frenetic. Then suddenly, the track ends. You’re left wondering, where did it go? However, at least you’re are left with a wonderful memory of Jeff Buckley in full flight.

Last Goodbye begins with a slide guitar playing, as if just warming up. Quickly, things get serious. What follows is a beautiful song. Buckley’s voice is strong, clear and full of emotion. Despite the emotion, Jeff is  perfectly in control of his voice. Again, he demonstrates that wide vocal range. This allows him to veer from gentle and tender to high and soaring. Always though, Jeff in control. As for Jeff’s lyrics, they are among the best on the Grace. When he delivers them, his vocal is heartfelt, impassioned and emotive. That’s one reason why, seamlessly, everything falls into place. Jeff’s vocal, the lyrics and his band’s play their part in one of Grace’s high points.

Lilac Will will be familiar to many people. It has been covered by many artists. I’ve heard many of these versions. Some are good, others bad, and some the equivalent of a musical car crash. Jeff’s version is, by far, my favorite version. He poured everything he had into this song. During the song, you’ll experience a wide range of emotions. You’ll feel sad and happy, and experience highs and lows. Here his rendition is heartfelt, passionate and loaded with emotion. He brings the tempo way down low, when he sings his voice is brilliant, perfectly suited for the song. The arrangement is minimalist, just Jeff and his band playing softly behind him. It’s truly a gorgeous, soul-baring version of this song. After you’ve heard this version, anything else is second best.

After Jeff’s vocal masterclass on Lilac Wine, it’s going to be hard to either equal, or better that song. On So Real, he tries, tries very hard. It’s a good attempt. So Real is another of the album’s highlights. His voice is at its best, going between soft and gentle, to high and soaring. When he does this, he’s always in control of his powerful voice. This is something he shared with his father Tim. On this track, the arrangement is much fuller, the band are occasionally, allowed of the leash. Like Jeff Buckley’s vocal, the band’s performance veers between almost understated to full on. Having said that, they never overpower Jeff Buckley’s vocal, and compliment him perfectly.

Hallelujah sees Jeff cover another song that has been covered by many people. Written by Leonard Cohen, it’s a beautiful song, with Cohen’s version in many people’s opinion the best. Until now. Jeff sings the song beautifully, the arrangement wonderfully understated. He immerses himself into the song. So much so, that his version is one of the most moving versions of this song you’ll ever hear. When he delivers the lyrics, there are no frills. Instead, you’re fortunate to hear what’s an extremely moving and heartfelt reading of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful lyrics. This version is dramatic and emotive. When you first hear this track, it takes your breath away. It’s so different from many of the songs on the album. Only one word can describe this performance. Seminal.

Lover You Shouldn’t Have Come is a track that starts slowly. Gradually, it reveals  its secrets and subtleties. After  nearly a minute  before Jeff Buckley sings. When he does, it’s well worth the wait. His performance is truly compelling. Jeff’s delivery of the lyrics he wrote is full of despondency and despair. He sounds as if he’s outlived the relationship he’s singing about. What follows is a snapshot into Jeff’s turbulent personal life.  It’s also the perfect showcase for Jeff’s talents as a songwriter. Quite simply, these are some of his best lyrics on Grace. His vocal is just as good. When Jeff sings, he sings from the heart. You feel he means every word of the lyrics. Heartfelt, sincere and tinged with equal parts despair and despondency, Lover You Shouldn’t Have Come features Jeff at his very best.

Corpus Christi Carol, is from Benjamin Britton’s, A Boy Is Born. This was a song that Jeff was first introduced to in school. It’s the last of the three cover versions on the album. His version of this song is stunning. When you hear his voice, it has an ethereal quality, he controls his voice really well, resisting the urge to reinterpret the song. Instead he sings the song as it’s meant to be sung. The arrangement is subtle, understated and perfect for this beautiful song.

Eternal Life is the complete opposite to many tracks on Grace. Whereas Lilac Wine, Hallelujah and Corpus Christi Carol are quiet tracks, with a subtlety and understated arrangement, Eternal Life is the complete opposite. Straight away, the sound is loud and unapologetic. It’s right in your face. Truthfully, you worry if your speakers will survive nearly five minutes of this. Searing, scorching guitars soar above the arrangement and the drums pound. So much so, that it sounds as if they’re being  punished. After the initial shock, when you listen to the track, it grows on you. You begin to enjoy it. Jeff Buckley’s vocal is loud, as if he’s battling his band, almost struggling to make himself heard. When eventually the tempo drops, you breath a sigh of relief, draw breath. Mistake. They start straight back up, launching another assault on their instruments. By the end, I’m exhausted, but in all honesty, I really enjoyed the track, as it showed a very different side to Jeff.

Grace ends with Dream Brother, a track that has a hesitant start. When the track starts the arrangement is gentle. A guitar plays quietly, drums play in the distance and Jeff’s vocal is understated. The song meanders along. I’m always waiting for the song to open out, the volume to increase, Jeff and the band to cut loose. After two and a half minutes the sound gets fuller, the band and Jeff still showing restraint. They’re resisting the temptation to end the album with a band. Instead Jeff Buckley’s vocal is controlled, very much within himself. His voice is still full of character and feeling when he sings the lyrics. They’re powerful, his rendition of them adding a dramatic impact. Then the song ends, not with a bang, but with a subtle, understated ending. It’s a lovely track to end the album, keeping up the consistent quality that runs throughout Grace.

Grace was the only album released during Jeff Buckley’s short life. It was one of the best debut albums of the nineties. Twenty years later, Grace is still one of the best debut album you’ll be lucky enough to hear. So good was Grace, that was hailed as one of the best album of the 1990s. That’s still the case. Grace is a truly timeless album.  It’s an album that has stood the test of time well. Today, Grace still sounds as good today as the day I first heard it back in 1994. Indeed, so good was Grace that it was hailed one of the finest albums of the nineties. In the twenty years since Grace’s release, it’s been hailed as a classic album. Whenever lists of the best albums of all-time are released, Grace features on it. As a result, Grace has sold over two million copies. That’s no surprise. It’s a classic album that belongs in every record collection. For those yet to discover Grace, now is their opportunity to do so.

Grace which was released just over twenty years ago, will be rereleased by Sony BMG on 15th September 2014. This twentieth anniversary edition of Grace includes both a vinyl and CD version of Grace,  Jeff Buckley’s Magnus Opus. Grace should’ve launched Jeff Buckley’s career. Sadly, fate decided to intervene.

Nearly three years after the release of Grace, on 29th May 1997 Jeff was in based in Memphis, where he was in the process of recording his sophomore album. Things hadn’t been going well. He’d changed producer and came to Memphis seeking inspiration. Tom Verlaine was replaced by Andy Wallace, who produced Grace. Tragedy occurred when Jeff was awaiting the arrival of his band.

With nothing to do, Jeff decided to go for a swim in the Wolf River. Having dived fully clothed into the river, Jeff was caught in the wake of a passing boat. Various attempts were made to rescue Jeff. These attempts were in vain. It wasn’t until 5th June 2014, that Jeff Buckley’s body was recovered. That day, music lost one of  its most potentially talented sons. Jeff Buckley’s musical legacy was his only album Grace, 

Although Jeff Buckley only released one album, Grace was a stonewall classic. It’s a mixture of three cover versions and seven new songs. There is not one bad song on Grace. This is unusual. Usually, there are a couple of mediocre tracks on most albums. Not on Grace. It’s an album that oozes quality. Similarly, emotion and beauty is omnipresent throughout Grace. That’s why Grace is one of these albums that I return to time and time again. Each time, I hear something new. With every listen to Grace, subtleties or nuances continue to reveal themselves. That’s why I never tire of listening to Grace. It was the perfect showcase for Jeff Buckley.

He could’ve become one of the most talented singer-songwriters of his generation. Jeff could’ve and should’ve enjoyed widespread commercial success and critical acclaim. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Jeff died aged thirty, having never come close to fulfilling his potential. Grace is just a taste of what Jeff Buckley was capable of.  Sadly, we’ll never know what heights Jeff Buckley might of reached? Grace is just a hint of the heights Jeff Buckley might have reached and what he was capable of. 



1 Comment

  1. A pure drop in an ocean of noise. Jeff is up there in the best damn band mortally imaginable, jamming with Nusrat ali Khan and Jimi Hendrix and the like. Hats off to you sir for the beautiful lengthy written tribute.

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