For someone who sang so nakedly, Jeff Buckley has had the constant misfortune of being heard through screens. First and foremost was his father’s shadow: Jeff looked like Tim, sang like Tim, wrote long, wandering melodies like Tim, and then had the bad luck of dying young like Tim. Even without the precedent of his dad, that early death–by drowning, last year–hovers over Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, posthumously compiled from demos and rejected sessions. When someone dies young, it’s impossible not to see their life as shadowed by tragedy from the start; every misstep seems a harbinger, every victory a futile gesture against the darkness.
Fair play demands we ignore all that and judge Buckley’s music on its own merits. But fairness was never an operating principle in his work–Jeff Buckley was an over-the-top romantic, and his two albums are full of hauntings and graspings at transcendence, which usually meantfucking as spiritual practice. An accidental drowning was simply too apt. Buckley’s music was always liquid; his guitar climaxes unfurled rather than crunched, his falsetto wandered all over octaves, and Sweetheart, particularly, is rife with images of submergence–“Stay with me under these waves tonight,” “Ah, the calm below that poisoned river wild.”
But. Still. Buckley made records–actual, crafted things you can hold in your hands. The first disk of Sketches sounds like an attempt to strip away the scrim of Oedipal mythology and see what lies beneath it. Unsurprisingly, the answer is: more mythology. Recorded with Tom Verlaine behind the boards, these 10 songs drop Grace‘s harmonium, dulcimer, organ, and vibes in favor of the basic rock unit: two guitars, bass, and drums (though you can hear uncredited strings on “Everyone Here Wants You,” and a mellotron, I think, in “New Year’s Prayer”). The result is like Nick Drake fronting a grunge band. Even though the accompaniment is reined in, Buckley’s keening voice and purple lyrics light out for the territories on their own.
The leadoff track, “The Sky Is a Landfill,” is a ham-fisted Dylanesque screed against politics, pollution, and groupthink, but lacking the master’s knack for leavening logorrhea with mother wit. By the time Buckley accuses Mr. Jones of liking to “dance to the rolling head of the adultress,” you’re glad for the lack of sledgehammer clarity, even if you suspect he had no more idea than you what the line means. Not only wasn’t Buckley a poet, a lot of the time he wasn’t even a songwriter per se. He was an orchestrator of climaxes, a sculptor of dramatic arcs, and on that level the track is undeniable.
Buckley may have loved Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (to whom the album is dedicated) because he heard a kindred spirit in the sweep of Khan’s spiraling ululations, butqawwali singers have the discipline to perform for 45 minutes at a time without disappearing into the ether. Without such mastery, Buckley wound up with hokum like “New Year’s Prayer,” which superficially resembles Pakistani holy music but drifts where Khan drives. When Buckley did subject himself to a discipline–namely that of songcraft–the payoff is obvious. “Everybody Here Wants You” is basically a soul number, with the band holding back–spare drums and gently ringing chords framing Buckley’s androgynous voice. Here he’s got his overwhelming talent–a perfect tenor teasing us with hints of falsetto–under control. By the time he gets to an unexpected and graceful modulation at the bridge, the woman, and the listener, are his.
“Nightmares by the Sea” and “Yard of Blonde Girls” are the dark side of Buckley’s dream-lover persona–an “angry young man” looking for women offering “innocence,” only to leave them feeling victimized afterward. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re fascinated or bored with his callowness. From the seductive slo-mo metal riffs of “Blonde Girls” to the soaring chorus of “Nightmares,” Buckley crafted memorable songs out of his own confusion, and that’s all we have any right to expect from someone so young.
A relentless perfectionist who never made a perfect record, Buckley decided the Verlaine session tracks weren’t up to his standards and started reworking them and writing new songs before he died. The reasons are unclear, and the two remixes included on Sketches second disk are altered too slightly to clarify what his concerns were. The rest of the disk is rough four-track demos of new songs, most of them not yet hammered into something listenable.
If I had to guess, though, I think Buckley would have come around to realizing that Verlaine had actually done an admirable job of channeling his excesses. The point is made well enough by the second disk’s last track. “Satisfied Mind,” Hayes and Rhodes’s classic evocation of the simple life, has been sung by other young men who died too early–Gram Parsons, Tim Hardin–but it really isn’t a young man’s song. Buckley’s performance is god-awful, his vocal swoops trampling all over the song’s purposefully homely melody. “One thing’s for certain/When it comes my time/I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind,” he sings in a gaseous, hysterical manner, making clear that he passed on too early to make good on the lyric.
Fuck the romance of an early death–there’s nothing beautiful about someone so talented dying before they can sing “Satisfied Mind” properly.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 26, 1998