Released in August 1994, Jeff Buckley’s Grace is his lone complete studio album. While it initially sold poorly, it has since become a cult classic, selling over 2 million copies worldwide. It placed #303 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time list, #13 on Q’s 2005 greatest albums of all time list, and was reportedly David Bowie’s favorite record. Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” would also become the definitive reading of the song, eventually being inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. Unfortunately, Buckley would not live to see his success. He died in May 1997 at the age of 30 in a drowning accident at Memphis’s Wolf River Harbor.
Why I’ve Been Avoiding It
Grace is an album that comes with an immense amount of mythology and baggage, so getting into it always seemed like work to me. This is an album that is meant to be experienced, and it just never seemed like the right time. Plus, Buckley’s tracks have a tendency to zig when you expect them to zag, so on the few occasions when I did give it a tentative shot, it was difficult to find a foothold. Couple that with the sheer ubiquitousness of “Hallelujah” — which has been featured in The West Wing, The O.C., House M.D., Without a Trace, One Tree Hill, The Edukators, Lord of War, Saint Ralph, Shrek, and Longmire, to name a few — and I just never felt the urgency to give Grace a fair shake. Alas, I do now. Thanks, New Year’s resolutions!
Every once in a while, there’s a singular moment where a vocalist transcends mere talent and reveals him or herself as a true genius. Buckley’s moment arrives only 3 minutes and 55 seconds into Grace, during opening track “Mojo Pin.” Distorted guitars start cranking, and Buckley’s voice seems to be riding them to the top of a cliff. But just when it seems like the song is about to tumble over the edge, Buckley pulls back, unleashing a piercing yet beautiful scream that cuts through the noise and stops the song dead in its tracks. It’s a breath-taking moment in an album full of vocal gymnastics most singers could only dream of pulling off, so let’s start there. Grace is, without doubt, one of the finest vocal showcases ever put to record.
Buckley’s voice is a thing of true beauty, with perfect pitch and precision control that never sounds forced. And despite that technical proficiency, he is able to imbue his words with striking emotion. Just listen to “Hallelujah,” which somehow manages to capture the entirety of human romantic experience in a single song with its anthemic highs and crushing lows. On “Corpus Christi Carol,” Buckley’s version of a Middle English hymn first discovered in 1504, his otherworldly falsetto resembles an angel floating to Earth, while “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” enlists subtle organ and a backing choir to push Buckley to unleash his inner gospel diva, which he does to rousing effect.
Buckley was also a virtuoso guitarist with a prominent progressive streak and a voracious musical appetite, and his songs are far from the traditional post-grunge fare of his time. “So Real” features a gnarly guitar solo that sounds as if Buckley is taking a chainsaw to the studio, while “Mojo Pin” and “Grace,” his two co-writes with Gary Lucas of Gods & Monsters, move and transform in ways more common to prog-rock or jazz than mid-’90s alternative rock. Even his most straightforward track, “Last Goodbye,” veers a bit left of center. Kicking off with a legitimate bass hook, the song quickly buries it in the mix, focusing instead on Buckley’s lush falsetto as he delivers a yearning breakup lyric for the ages, “Kiss me, please kiss me. But kiss me out of desire, babe, and not consolation.” It’s the moment that launched a thousand overly sensitive male singer/songwriters, but in Buckley’s hands, it’s authentic.
The only time Buckley stumbles comes on “Eternal Life,” where he can’t seem to decide whether he wants to sound like Billy Corgan, Chris Cornell, or Axl Rose as his band kicks up a distorted racket reminiscent of Blood Sugar Sex Magik-era Red Hot Chili Peppers. Buckley was a huge fan of hard rock, and the posthumously released Sketches from My Sweetheart the Drunk seems to indicate that he was in the process of perfecting his own version of it. Unfortunately, “Eternal Life” wears its influences a bit too prominently on its sleeve. That said, Buckley more or less creates the now-classic Radiohead sound on “Dream Brother,” so a little hero worship on his part is easily forgiven.
Grace more than earns its classic status on the strength of Buckley’s voice alone, but his vast musical vocabulary and innovative approach to songwriting elevate it even further. This is a pivotal album in rock history, drawing a line from the grunge revolution to bands like Radiohead and Arcade Fire who would carry the genre into the 2000s and beyond. It also presaged an era in which bands like Nirvana could sit comfortably next to Nina Simone, Leonard Cohen, and traditional ballads from the 16th century on music fans’ iPods and Spotify playlists. It’s now much easier to step outside your own musical lane and experience a broad swath of sound, and Buckley was one of the first artists to make that immersion seem cool and worthwhile. The music world is far richer for having had him in it.
“Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”