With not one but two impending biopics in the works, one starring Reeve Carney and the other Penn Badgley, it an appropriate time to take a look back at one of the most unique voices of the last few decades.
Jeff Buckley’s 1994 album, Grace, has a way of haunting listeners long after the threads of the last track have unwound. It is fair to say that the loss of Jeff Buckley, three years after the release of his only studio album, counts among music’s great losses. Through the shifting moods of Grace, Buckley’s voice is the instrument that impresses the most.
While his tremendous range is best showcased on "So Real" and "Dream Brother," the album gives listeners an impressive introduction with the first track, "Mojo Pin."
It begins with a slow crescendo, a feature that also appears on many of the album’s other tracks. Buckley’s wordless, sustained croon are the first vocals we hear. After the first half-whispered verse, the noise accumulates as if out of an ethereal elsewhere, rising toward a culmination of clashing cymbals and vocals that scream but, amazingly, avoid becoming ragged or strained.
From the opening track to the closing one, listening to this album feels like slipping into a dream-trance. Reality is slightly out of focus. Buckley’s voice and a menagerie of supporting instruments, including an organ, dulcimer, harmonium (a keyboard instrument similar to a reed organ), and various percussion instruments contribute to the fog. At the same time one gets a sense that the music is struggling to re-focus reality, to bring a missing element forward. Maybe Grace?
Buckley creates this feeling in individual songs. The music, especially his vocals, pushes here, pulls there, flares up and then retreats. This is not to say the album is without emotional release. There is plenty during the peaks of certain songs, like the titular "Grace" and "Lover, You Should’ve Come Over," the latter being a runner-up for best track.
The album as a whole similarly takes on a rolling feel. It moves from intense peaks into quieter, melodic songs like "Lilac Wine" or "Last Goodbye." As a result, the album feels more linear than circular. This not-quite-complete feel is appropriate for Grace: an unsettled, searching album. The popularity of "Last Goodbye" (in addition to appearing alongside music by artists like Paul McCartney and R.E.M. in Vanilla Sky, it was covered faithfully, if not memorably, by Scarlett Johansson) makes it the second most familiar for casual Buckley fans, behind "Hallelujah."
"Hallelujah" stands with little argument as the best track on the album. For that handful of twenty-to-thirty year-olds who managed to avoid its frequent pop culture appearances and heard the Leonard Cohen version first, Buckley’s rendition will seem more meditative. It is solemn. There are no gospel-style backup singers. It adopts the progressive arpeggios that provide background support on Cohen’s album version into a simple guitar accompaniment, smoky and atmospheric.
Beyond that, it is just Buckley singing. While the media saturation that this song has suffered threatens to overshadow the beauty of it, it must be acknowledged that the full power of the song does not come across in Cohen’s recording. He needed Buckley’s voice to properly convey the meaning of the lyrics. At the risk of sounding indulgent, I will say that Buckley comes close to conveying what a heartbreak would sound like when he sings that love is "not somebody who’s seen the light / It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah." The vocal tones convey in sound exactly what the words mean.
At the end of Grace, we are left with the impression of an artist who may have not seen the light, but who was well on his way to understanding what that meant. Although the album was slow to garner popular acclaim, its staying power is indicative of a singer/songwriter who managed, with just one album, to etch a permanent place in rock history.