Of Sound Mind | Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”

Of Sound Mind is a biweekly blog about new albums, old albums, forgotten albums, overrated albums and any other type of listening experience from senior staff writer Lucas DiBlasi.

By Lucas DiBlasi, Senior Staff Writer

A gaunt 30-year-old musician went swimming in the Mississippi River just outside of Memphis, Tennessee, on the evening of May 29, 1997. He had just put in an offer on a house and a car, and his band had just arrived to finish recording what would have been his second studio album.

A tugboat slipped by, the wake pulled him under and one of the greatest voices to make vibrating air into pure emotion was gone.

Jeff Buckley’s “Grace,” originally released Aug. 23, 1994, is simply one of the best albums of all time. The posthumously released legacy version is almost two hours long and showcases the incredibly wide range of songs Buckley could write and cover, but it still feels like only the smallest of windows into the worlds his music could have created.

Born and raised in Southern California, Buckley played guitar and sang from an early age, and eventually moved to New York to further his music career. Playing mainly a Fender Telecaster guitar and singing, he spent years performing regularly at cafes and clubs, where a growing following led to a record deal with Columbia Records.

Listening to his live album from that time period, it’s not hard to see why people were interested. There’s something about Buckley’s massive, haunted, ridiculously expressive voice, his guitar playing and the breadth and depth of his influences that gets under your skin.

From folk legend Bob Dylan to hardcore punk band Bad Brains, Pakistani devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to jazz legend Nina Simone, Buckley’s influences and his covers of their songs are as wide-ranging as you can get. Unlike some artists, you can actually hear these influences at different points on “Grace,” but no more clearly than when he’s actually covering their songs.

He covers jazz standard “Lilac Wine” in a lilting, swelling, intimate indie-rock style early on the album, and later traditional hymn “Corpus Christi Carol” in an entirely falsetto a cappella style. He also covers, most famously, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but we’ll get to that later.

Buckley’s original songs slip through different styles, tempos and time signatures as seen on album opener “Mojo Pin” (a euphemism for heroin, or a girl or both). Hard, Led Zeppelin-style rock alternates with a jazzy, skewed beat under his soaring vocals. Based on a dream of his, it hits like a vision of what his music could be, what it could have been.

“Grace,” the next song on the album, is about “not feeling so bad about your own mortality when you have true love.” While many of his contemporary influences were singing about abject social alienation (think Nirvana), Buckley sang about little else than love in its many forms. I hardly fault him for this, as all the best songs are about love in one way or another.

“This is our last goodbye / I hate to feel the love between us die,” he sings on “Last Goodbye,” the second single from the album. Not only is his voice incredibly expressive, but his lyrics would often be evocative even in the absence of his singing.

Paired together, there are lines from Buckley that sear themselves into your mind. “I love you / But I’m afraid to love you,” he sings breathily halfway through “So Real,” right after a grunge-rock solo cuts out abruptly.

The songwriting throughout “Grace” is also fascinating. There are incredibly abrupt changes from his falsetto on “Corpus Christi Carol” to the heavy grunge-rock of “Eternal Life,” and songs like “Mojo Pin” and “So Real” feature strange structures.

Many of the songs don’t follow typical pop “verse-chorus” form, with verses that vary and change lyrically and catchy choruses that stay the same. Instead, they shift from lilting vocal parts to massive guitar solos and everything in between. Buckley plucks chords and sounds (like theremins) from the strangest places and blends them into a cohesive whole.

It’s little wonder Dylan called him “one of the greatest songwriters of the decade,” but his lasting legacy from “Grace” is most concentrated in his cover of Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” If you’re not sure which version of “Hallelujah” you’re familiar with, as there have been many covers, it’s probably Buckley’s.

A gorgeous guitar tone reverberates around his voice as Buckley sings some of the best lyrics ever written, better than anyone else ever had before or ever would again. “Well I heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord / But you don’t really care for music, do ya?” he begins, and the song only gets better from there.

About five minutes and 58 seconds into the song, Buckley lets loose a “Hallelujah” That strikes into your very soul. I get goosebumps every single time I hear it. It’s the best moment on the best song on one of the best albums ever created. I give Buckley’s “Grace” a cold, broken, classic 9.8/10.

Lucas DiBlasi is a music composition and digital narrative and interactive design double major. You can write to him at [email protected].

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