Monday, February 8, 2010

By the grace of Jeff Buckley

I decided today that a change of pace was called for and that, after exploring the uncharted territory of music’s most extreme outer limits with Einstürzende Neubauten twice over the last week, something more mainstream was in order – if only to prove that even the more mainstream can be remarkable. And so today I turned to one of the greatest classic albums of all time: Jeff Buckley’s Grace.

From the moment that Jeff Buckley’s heart-drenched voice oohs its way into your soul at the beginning of the album’s opening ‘Mojo Pin’, and then floats into heights that make you cry, raining soft tears onto you, you know that this is going to be an amazing album. His is an astonishing voice, capable of conveying a whole human soul just in the way it wavers around a note, the way it trembles around a beat, the way it pours out everything it has got.

Jeff Buckley is, of course, a legend – and it could be tempting to say that his tragically early death has perhaps become as integral to that legend as the music itself. But when you listen to Grace, you become quickly aware that this music that was always destined to be extraordinary.

Listen to that album’s title track, and to the way Jeff Buckley’s voice wails and cries and then screeches and then, in the song’s chorus, just when you think it has wrenched every bit of pain out of you, it descends down a notch, as if the music itself is sobbing, breaking and bleeding your heart just a little more.

There isn’t a single track on this album where Jeff Buckley’s voice doesn’t sound like a miracle. Like his father, Tim, he has this remarkable ability to produce music that seems to ooze naturally out of every pore of his being. It can be quiet, hauntingly sad and desolate, like in ‘Lilac Wine’; it can howl with all the guts of rock, like it does in ‘Last Goodbye’; but always its rich textures, its profound musicianship, come to you as pure heart, untainted by the music, or the voice, of mere mortals.

You get a bit of a glimpse of how he achieves this when you listen to ‘So Real’, and notice the way the voice trails off onto notes that seem to be plucked out of the ether, as in the title line – notes that surely have come out of the singer’s soul, rather than just from a page of notes. Everywhere you look, Jeff Buckley disregards the conventions and stability of music for the sake of its core and its soul. He makes the music say what the inner depths of his heart want to tell you.

His rendition of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Corpus Christi Carol’, soaring in a bare celestial falsetto, is almost too beautiful to listen to, like the song of an angel mourning in private after learning of the death of her most treasured human life.

The arrangements on Grace work like a charm with the full-bodied voice of its singer. They are arrangements that become whatever they need to be to echo whatever Jeff’s voice is doing at the time, like in the tentative, trembling guitar work in his famous cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’; or the way the gentle, unobtrusive backing grows into a heartfelt chorus, with guitars and drums swelling with Jeff’s, his wails reflected in theirs, in ‘Lover, you should’ve come over’; or the way pounding guitars and drums underscore Jeff’s shrieking rock in ‘Forget her’; or the haunted, ghostly repetitions on the electric guitar, creating a mystical sea of sound on which Jeff’s voice floats and pitches throughout ‘Dream Brother’.

There is just not a bad track here, not even a mediocre one – and, more than anything, that’s because of what Jeff Buckley does with the music and with his voice.

It can be very easy to fall into clichés with an album like Grace – to wonder what might have been had its creator not died so young, and to muse about how special it is because he did. But ultimately it’s the music itself that makes this album the phenomenon that it is – music that takes you off on its cloud of beauty and pain, of passion and heartache, and leaves you floating up in the heavens long after it has left you.

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