1000 Albums Project

ALBUM 369

Grace, by Jeff Buckley
Suggested by Bryan Connolly
Reviewed by Michael Sylvian

Let’s start with a moving story.

On 29th May 1997, thirty year old Scott Moorhead, who was down in Memphis to work on his second album under his stage name, Jeff Buckley, went wading into the Mississippi river singing a Led Zeppelin song that he loved. His friend and roadie was about to reach out to save a radio and guitar on the bank from the wake of a tugboat that was churning its way up the river, but at the last minute something made him stop and look back: he saw the waves of the wake catch his singing friend, and dived in and saved him.

Scott “I’ll only use my famous father’s surname in public because I definitely don’t in any way want to profit off that” Buckley was lucky to still be alive. But for all that, when his second album, My Sweetheart the Drunk, came out, it was sadly to much the same public shrug and critical lack of enthusiasm as his first one, Grace. After a couple more years of dwindling audiences and neglected tours, he eventually returned to his session musician gig, played a few local bars and cafes, and lived out a comfortable, unremarkable life, occasionally popping up on “what might have been” lists. Grace dropped utterly out of memory, and no one noticed the little-known Leonard Cohen song he’d viciously butchered.

Except, of course, it never quite happened like that. The thing about a roadie is that they’ll always save the gear. And so it wasn’t Jeff that his roadie saved; it was the radio and guitar. Poor Scotty never came up for air and this young death – as is often the celebrity case – became the most important moment in Jeff Buckley’s life and career.

God knows what it says about music consumers that the word “tragic” is the most sure-fire way of boosting sales margins. We most voraciously gobble up a record only after the vicarious relish of tragedy has been liberally applied to what is often barely average music at best. So it is with Jeff, for example, whose rightly overlooked album suddenly blossomed into a “500 Best Records of all Time” staple.

No, really. Somehow, by dying, this barely reheated slop of overproduced, hook-free, grunge-adjacent earnestness lacquered with overblown, self-regarding warbling became essential. Never mind that if you play a Captain Beefheart album backwards while screaming, you’ll hear more pop hooks in your head than you will in any moment that Jeff wrote of Grace. Never mind that it has all the emotional depth and charm of if they remade Twilight starring Bono. We’re stuck with it now. Forever.

Never mind the tragedy; there are no end of perfectly good reasons to dislike this terrible album. Take his voice, for example, which halfway through the first song, I’d written the following descriptors of:

  • Like squeezing glue out of an old cat
  • One of those cans you got in toy shops in the 70s that, if you turned it over, went moo a bit like a cow, but if you were on a trampoline. And if the trampoline was sick.
  • When frogs collide

The man could sing a lot of octaves, sure, but that’s like saying that the quality of someone’s prose depends on how many colours of ink they use. Celine Dion and Whitney Huston made a lot of money by confusing “how meaningful is this song” with “how many notes can I cram into what started off as one syllable” and good luck to them, I suppose. But no one mistook them for deep, unlike Jeff, who remains in lists of “the voice of his generation”. That, despite the fact the man sounds like he’s gargling Eddie Vedder through a straw full of Thom Yorke’s leftover gravy.

When Jeff emotes, he takes words about sad things and growls them a bit, because that’s like, feelings, man. Never mind that dialling in some mimed intensity for a performed simulation of sincerity is the very opposite of sincere.

And that’s before you get to the actual words he’s callously mangling. It’s a whole album where a man who sounds like an irregularly compressed Kermit approaches far too many notes while rhyming like an unimaginative infant. Goodbye and die, he rhymes, with a po-face. Embrace and face, he gargles, with no audible indication of shame. He’d probably have ended up making love with a dove from above, had he lived long enough for that follow-up.

See, for me, the thing about being the voice of a generation is that you’d expect that when they open their mouth, you’d get something better than a protracted and baleful honk of someone else’s half-digested drivel leaking into your ears.

And the most lasting and ghastly legacy he left the world – the Jeff Buckley Factor, if you will – is what he did to Hallelujah. It goes like this:

  1. Take a song; a deep, complex and nuanced song.
  2. Over-sing a saccharin and prissily self-regarding cover of it as if the meaning of the song were nothing more than your own supposedly beautiful voice, rather than words and meanings that, you know, are the f**king song.
  3. After you die, have your fatuous celebrity backers relentlessly push this slab of blatant vacuity so that it is adopted universally as a signifier of Real Emotion, Man
  4. Watch as the poor, once-beautiful song-thing is then endlessly re-honked by even worse idiots on every season of reality talent shows, or at weddings and funerals for people who didn’t understand it.
  5. All the while, obliviously gaze into the middle distance as if you haven’t singlehandedly obliterated the capacity for meaning with your own endless narcissism and superficiality.

Thanks, Jeff. Thanks for what you did to Hallelujah. And don’t even get me started on the way you had the nerve to cover a Nina Simone song. It’s like if Michael Bolton started selling tickets to read out the I Have A Dream speech while visibly sh*tting on a picture of Martin Luther King.

So there it is. I never listened to this record all the way through before. I certainly never will again. It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever put in my ears, and I genuinely considered whether instead of a written review I should just film myself drowning myself as a final comment. The best song on this record? It’s his version of a carol, because the man really could sing when he wasn’t trying to Channel Classic Rock like some kind of quacking banality viaduct. Mind you, Jeff can’t even make a song for God about anything more than him performing the sentence “Haven’t I Got A Lovely Tonsils, Eh” repeatedly.

As for the album score? 2/10 seems generous to me, given that what he did to Hallelujah was even more polluting to culture than what he did to the poor Mississippi. Still, could be worse. Thank god for roadies putting gear first, eh?

[Craig’s Review – I quite liked it. 6/10]

[Craig’s Actual Review – Unlike Michael, who seems to have taken a misadventurous death a little too personally, I knew nothing of Jeff until I Googled, about halfway through. Until then, and indeed beyond, I’d largely enjoyed what I’d heard. It leans a little towards the beige, but there’s effort here, and some of it is lovely. My favourite song was Eternal Life, as it was quite rocky. When I did read up on Jeff’s death, I felt a bit sad. I don’t feel that the backstory jaundiced my appreciation either way, but as I had no opinion on the supposed Legacy of this album, I certainly don’t feel the sense of warped personal affrontery that Michael describes. I spent a nice hour listening to pleasant sounds, and moved on. 6/10]

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