Is it worth a listen? Grace

This week we are discussing the late Jeff Buckley’s debut album Grace.

There has always been something about the album art that has struck me. Just the somber expression on Buckleys face, almost as if he had just sung Hallelujah or Mojo Pin.

Columbia Records

There has always been something about the album art that has struck me. Just the somber expression on Buckley’s face, almost as if he had just sung “Hallelujah” or “Mojo Pin.”

The music industry in the 90’s was centered around two genres, Grunge and Hip Hop. You had bands like Nirvana (“Heart-Shaped Box”, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), Soundgarden (“Spoonman”, “Black Hole Sun”) and Alice In Chains (“Man In The Box”, “Rooster”). Then you had hip hop artists/groups like Wu-Tang Clan (“C.R.E.A.M.”), 2Pac (“Hit ‘Em Up”, “California Love”) and The Notorious B.I.G. (“Big Poppa”, “Juicy”). Underneath that all was Jeff Buckley, who was quite honestly the exact opposite of what was popular at the time. 

Buckley was the son of avant-garde folk artist Tim Buckley, he grew estranged from his father and never really knew him. Buckley wanted to pave his own road in the industry without his father and he did so with his debut, as well as his only completed album, 1994’s Grace

Upon its initial release the album was a flop, the sales were disappointing and most of the reviews at the time weren’t very positive. Three years later Buckley would tragically die in a late night swim and he never released another completed album. It wouldn’t be until 2007 that Buckley’s music would achieve success. 

All with one song, “Hallelujah”. This cover would define Buckley’s short music career, it became one of the most downloaded digital tracks in the year 2008. It’s his sensual cover that has given his popularity and yet the influence this album has had is significant. Musicians ranging from Matt Bellamy (Muse, “Hysteria”, “Supermassive Black Hole”) to Thom Yorke (Radiohead, “Creep”, “Paranoid Android”) have cited Buckley’s vocals as being an influence for their own. 

Even some of the very artists Buckley was inspired by, found themselves praising this album. David Bowie (“Moonage Daydream”, “China Girl”) said that “Grace would be the album he would take to a desert island” (The Eternal Life of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’, Tony Gervino). Even Bob Dylan (“Like A Rolling Stone”, “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, “Blowing In The Wind”), arguably one of the greatest songwriters of all time, called Buckley one of the greatest songwriters of the 90’s.

Tim and Jeff Buckley never really knew each other, Tim Buckley died in 1975. Jeff was estranged from his father for the 9 years of overlap. Not only did they have similarities with their vocals but they also looked extremely similar as well, to the point it’s kind of scary. (Auralcrave)

With all that being said, it’s time for us to dive into Grace. This week we have a modern day nephilim Cayden Zachrich and the musical Jenna Gibson. 

The best way I can describe Grace is as being alternative folk but even that doesn’t fit for the entire album. Buckley goes through this large range of emotions, some songs are filled with this “hard aggressive rock sound”, Zachrich pointed out during our discussion.

“There’s the moon asking to stay / Long enough for the clouds to fly me away / Oh, it’s my time coming / I’m not afraid to die.” Buckley cries out in the opening minutes of the title track “Grace”, this is the defining track for me. It displays everything that this album does best, the vocal range of Buckley and the shifts in the style.

The song starts with this very Smiths-esque riff, while Buckley cries out and it all builds up to the final chorus. “Here at the end of the song was like a kind of dramatic build up  with sporadic drumming”, Zachrich was attracted to that. In the end it all comes to a crescendo as Buckley cries “Wait in the fire”, his cries reaching high notes that I can only dream of ever hitting. It’s beautiful and it perfectly displays everything that makes him Jeff Buckley.

Covers are a staple of the music industry, ranging from Joe Crocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” (Originally from The Beatles) to Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower” (Originally from Bob Dylan) or to the one-hit wonder Alien Ant Farm’s “Smooth Criminal” (Originally from Michael Jackson).  There are several songs from the album that aren’t originals, for example the regretful “Lilac Wine” or the angelical “Corpus Christi Carol” (Gibson actually found herself really enjoying Corpus, stating “he switches between this angelic like choir style music, but then he also has like these really carnal sounds that he’ll throw in there.”) 

However, there is one cover on this album that has defined not only this album but Buckley’s short music career. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, is the track that defines Buckley for better or for worse.

The screenshot of the track list on Spotify displays how many listens each song has had. It’s clearly shown how Buckley’s rendition of “Hallelujah” is the most popular song on the album. (Juan Drown)

Zachrich described the sound of Buckley’s rendition as being “gospel with a slower feel.” The original from Cohen feels very somber and even at times sacrastic, this is a person who in some ways questions the very statements he is making. With Buckley it’s a lot more sensual, which is a bit odd considering some of the lyrics but it works. 

Buckley brings a different energy to the song, “I really loved his rendition of Hallelujah. I think his voice really sounds dramatic, but the way he was like, the way he did crescendos and decrescendos.” Gibson voiced during our discussion.

Buckley has a very dramatic voice that elevates these songs, he takes them to such great heights, especially with this cover. The way the guitar swells and his vocals as it reaches the chorus and how it just kind of releases all of that tension as he sings out “Hallelujah.”

“[Buckley’s voice] elicits a really big emotional response to the [vocal] skill that he shows and demonstrates in his music” Gibson added during our discussion. Buckley is an extremely talented singer.  For Zachrich it reminded him of his favorite singer Freddie Mercury of Queen and I understand that. Both are crazy talented and have such a vocal range but there are plenty of talented singers in the music industry.

For Buckley, it’s not just the vocals that work but the instrumentation as well. It all comes together to create these atmospheres that just dominate this album. The album is “like a mix of styles and tempo”, Gibson expressed. The crazy thing is sometimes just within the songs themselves they change up the style and tempo.

In the opening track “Mojo Pin”, creates this very dreamy and ethereal vibe with his vocals combined with the instrumentation than it changes in the chorus going into this much harder sound as the drums pound away and his cries pierce through all of the distortion. Buckley doesn’t stick to one thing.

Gibson summed up the album best by saying, “the most consistent aspect of the whole album is how inconsistent it is.” For Zachrich this is what drew him to this album, “I think that’s like a good element of a song where it just kind of has everything in it.”

Of the albums I have talked about, I would have to say that Grace is the closest to perfection I have discussed. Buckley accomplished so much in the 51 minutes he gave himself. It consistently keeps you engaged with its shift in instrumentation and his dramatic vocal range. For crying out loud, the angelical lullaby “Corpus Christi Carol” goes into the the rocking and even cynical “Eternal Life.”

I love how “Eternal Life” opens with a glass breaking sound effect because it breaks this lull that the previous track put you in. The beauty of this album is “the emotions that he’s pulling out of people with the music itself”, Gibson pointed out to me. Never before have I listened to an album of this emotional and dramatic magnitude.

Everything works well here from the dreamy “Mojo Pin” to the sorrowful “Lilac Wine” to the pleading “Dream Brother.” Buckley puts everything he has in this album and I love every second of it, except maybe the underwhelming “So Real.” I understand the vibe he is trying to create with this song but it just doesn’t work for me or Zachrich.

Chris Jackson

The tragedy of it all is how young Buckley died, he was just 30 when he unfortunately drowned. We have lost so many great talents but in a way he died in a way that fit who he was, spontaneous. He was working on his sophomore album Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk when he tragically died. The album would be released but it never was completed.

In a way Buckley was like a dream, he was there one moment and gone the next, we remember him more after he left us. For that reason, I would have to give this album “I heard there was a secret chord / That David played it and it pleased the Lord”/10.

As always I’m looking for new music to try out, so if you think I’ll like something then recommend it to me. And if you disagree with my thoughts on this album or just want to talk about it then talk about it with me or at the very least someone else. Art survives through discussions like this one.