Jeff Buckley’s life was a freak occurrence. Artists and songwriters like him come around only a few times in a generation, and unfortunately, Buckley was only able to release one proper studio album before his accidental death. Buckley’s debut, GRACE, is a masterwork. The album sounds effortless, delicate, powerful, and emotionally raw — it’s characterized primarily by Buckley’s angelic voice. GRACE’s impact and influence on alternative music can’t be understated — Thom Yorke of Radiohead once stated that the song “Fake Plastic Trees” (a significant creative milestone for the band at the time) was written directly after seeing Buckley live in concert. At times it’s comforting; at times it’s haunting; it’s always, however, beautiful. Originally released to mixed reviews and poor sales, GRACE only saw success (commercial and critical) after the death of Buckley some years later. Composed of 10 tracks (with 3 of them covers), Jeff Buckley’s first and only studio album is essential listening for fans of alternative music.
GRACE begins with “Mojo Pin,” a song that does well to surmise almost everything that the album has to offer; the song has soaring vocals (and high reaching falsettos), pastoral guitar work, laid-bare lyrics, crunching distortion, and a seemingly effortless shifting between tones and styles. I remember, years ago, hearing the song for the first time and scratching my head and wondering “who is this?” It’s an unforgettable sound that Buckley has, and the remaining 9 tracks only offer more. While “Hallelujah” is surely the most recognized of Buckley’s work, it was never released as a single; the selftitled track was the lead single initially released to promote the album. It’s one of Buckley’s more aggressive songs, and it’s middle interlude finds Buckley screaming — with it’s lyrics considering death and beyond (notably “It’s my time coming, I’m not afraid, afraid to die”), it’s a haunting listen in retrospect. “Last Goodbye,” the album’s next track, found the most success during Buckley’s short life. The song never quite worked for me, as it always felt like the most conventional track on all of GRACE — live versions would find the song using more Buckley-esque hallmarks, but as it remains on his debut, it’s conventional by his standards.
Much like opening track “Mojo Pin,” “So Real” combines most of Jeff Buckley’s songwriting techniques into one song. It’s perhaps the most haunting of all the songs here: a song that sounds eerily paranoid. It’s ending refrain is sure to send shivers up listener’s spines. Perhaps one of my favorites is the seventh track: “Lover, You Should Have Come Over.” This bluesy track is a beautiful serenade to a lost love, and while Buckley’s lyrics are quite beautiful, nothing compares to the emotions that his music evokes. At over 6 minutes long, every note in the song sounds essential — it’s a perfect recording. Every time the song plays, I have to stop what I’m doing only to become lost in it. “Eternal Life” is surely the most straightforward of all the songs on GRACE: it’s a stomping, crunching, distorted rocker. While it may be rougher around the edges than other songs, it doesn’t suffer from a lack of nuance though. The final track, “Dream Brother” is a more psychedelic departure than anything else on Buckley’s debut. It’s a dreamy, atmospheric song that uses nearly-tribal rhythms to give it an otherworldly vibe. It’s a haunting ending to one of the 90’s best albums.
The three covers recorded here are “Lilac Wine,” “Corpus Christi Carol,” and “Hallelujah.” The most well-known of all of Buckley’s work manifests itself in a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” While Cohen’s original preceded this rendition by nearly a decade, Buckley’s cover is the definitive take on the song. The song features only Buckley’s vocals and his guitar, and it’s one of the most beautifully captivating songs put to tape. The rest of Buckley’s covers suffer in comparison: not because they are bad songs, but because besting “Hallelujah” is quite the tall order. “Lilac Wine,” originally written by James Shelton in the 1950’s, is a mesmerizing ballad. The lyrics recount a lilac tree, the wine made from said tree, and his lover — it’s sincere and sexy. “Corpus Christi Carol” is a pastoral hymn that dates back to the 1500’s (yes, you read that right). Buckley doesn’t attempt to make the traditional hymn an alternative rock hit — instead, he recreate a rather faithful rendition of the song which lets his vocal soar for ridiculously high falsettos.
Jeff Buckley’s one and only studio album is a must-listen. I originally bought it on the advice of others, and years later, I still have it on normal rotation. It’s an album that is everything at once: it’s eerie, it’s beautiful, it’s happy, it’s mournful, it’s romantic, it’s pragmatic. With lyrics that often focus on life and mortality, GRACE is all the more tragic in the wake of Buckley’s untimely death. Essential tracks to sample/download: “Hallelujah,” “Grace,” and “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.”