PHOTO CREDIT: Merri Cyr
The Continuing Inspiration of Jeff Buckley’s Grace
IT is a bit soon to come out of the gates…
PHOTO CREDIT: Merri Cyr
with any predictions regarding new music or bits of music news. I will talk about another regular fixture on my pages, Kate Bush, and why I want to concentrate on her a lot in 2018. The year has just begun and, why I am keen to explore everything going on right now, I have been thinking about an album that keeps coming up in interviews I conduct: Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Maybe apropos of nothing; it is interesting investigating why the album appears so frequently in the minds of new musicians. I have looked at all the interviews from last year and the album musicians listed as their favourite, above all, was Grace. It is easy to see why it would resound in the minds of new musicians but is the impassioned way they discuss the record that stands out – in the same way so many musicians single Kate Bush as their most influential artist. The record was released in 1994 and, at the time, I was eleven. Many of the musicians I interview are younger than me and discovered Grace later in the decade/the start of the 2000s. When Grace arrived (in 1994); the music scene was packed with genius and glorious music. It was one of the finest years in music history and, from U.K. talent like Oasis and Blur, through to U.S. artists such as Green Day and Pavement – the year kept producing world-class albums like there was no tomorrow.
PHOTO CREDIT: Anton Corbijn
You only need to do a cursory search on the Internet to look at all the wonderful albums from 1994. There are some seductive and tender albums in the pack but nothing like Grace. In 1994, as we can see, there was a demand for more anthemic, instant music. From Oasis’ Definitely Maybe to the eponymous album from Weezer – a desire to get the energy levels up and the heart pumping fast. There were more Pop-orientated albums like Madonna’s Bedtime Stories and Tori Amos’ Under the Pink: the general demand was for the bigger, bolder records. Grunge’s king, Kurt Cobain, died and there was a new charge of U.K. Rock/Alternative. It was a transitional time where new orders were replacing the old – among this was a strange and unique album from a new American star. I know I have looked at Buckley’s masterpiece a couple of times in the past year – marking the anniversary of his death and why Grace is considered one of the very best from music – but it seems appropriate to return to the record. A lot of young musicians (in their twenties/thirties) discovered Grace when the Rock/Grunge movement was dying down and the 1990s was coming to an end. Against all the chaos, energy and confusion of the time – that was reflected in the adolescent lives of the listeners – there was the need for something safe and romantic.
PHOTO CREDIT: Anton Corbijn
Jeff Buckley could not really release the album at any other time. Playing cafes and small shows around New York during 1992/1993; record label Columbia signed up the promising songwriter and was keen to get him in the studio. Sojourning to Bearsville Studios, Woodstock; the young master started recording songs that were being previewed and performed to modest audiences in the U.S. He would go on to tour around the world and go down in history but, at that time, the following was relatively small. Few knew what to expect when the album came out on 23rd August. Like all the finest albums that get acclaim after the fact; Jeff Buckley’s only studio album received a smattering of applause upon its release. Sales were not great and it took a while for the public to turn their minds onto the album. That is not a surprise given the demands and climate of music in 1994. Touring, exposure and dedicated passion saw the album gain a following but it is the ensuing years have elevated the record to Godlike status. For me, and many, it represents a shaft of calm in an ocean of confusion. That may sound dystopian but, even in the mid-1990s; there was a lot of negativity and aggression in music. A few artists tried to counteract that with something more uplifting but the clash of optimistic Britpop optimism and a more negative, insular U.S. scene created a fractured and divided scene.
British music would not change and assimilate U.S. artists more readily until the end of the 1990s but Buckley, in Grace, was already ahead of the pack. People responded to it then because it was different and provided an alternative: further down the track, as the dust started to settle; the true relevance and beauty of Grace came to light. It is a personal and revealing album but one that is not too closed-off and heartbreaking. The title-track is a paen to true love and one of the more accelerated numbers on the album; Eternal Life and So Real see Buckley assume a fiercer mantle – looking at subjects of corruption and love with equal conviction and fascination. Each song has a different skin and, in the 1990s and now; that importance and desire are the same. Back then, as young musicians were experiencing the world for the first time; they connected with an outsider and misunderstood soul offering the planet something deeply heartfelt and pure. You only need to look at polls now to see how wrong critics were. Grace is seen as one of the most iconic albums of 1994 and, in retrospect, perfectly fitted into a year where things were changing and people/artists were searching for fresh guidance. You can argue Grace has gained a lot of headway and acclaim because of its standout track, Hallelujah.
PHOTO CREDIT: Mikio Ariga
That song comes as close to perfect as you can imagine: the ethereal, near-religious performance is hymnal and sublime; a song that is as right to score sadness as it is to celebrate an orgasm (Buckley’s version was, as he said, concerned with sex and the orgasm). That song has taken on a life of its own and almost overshadows everything else on the record. Talent shows and endless covers have not dampened the potency and splendour of the definitive version – even its author, Leonard Cohen, could not have envisaged the song would be presented that way. Beauty and grace are present throughout the album. It speaks to those whose hearts have been broken and who feel things too readily. Sensitivity is seen as a stigma to some: to Buckley, it was his way of connecting with things deeply and feeling more than anyone else. The complexities and contrasts of sensitivity are explored throughout the record. I relate to it because the music comes from a man who had his heart broken but was not giving up on the world; he is isolated and misunderstood but has that attachment and affiliation with words and music – what they can do and how they can define a person. I am not surprised to see the record so highly regarded as, to each person, it means a different thing.
Buckley’s personality, warmth and enigma shine in every song. I have heard interviews he gave around the release of the album and you can tell how meaningful the music is. I have not mentioned his band members – brilliant guitarist Michael Tighe among them – and the musicians that worked on Grace. The reason critics and fans ‘discovered’ the record years after its release means the nuance and songs one discovers run a lot deeper than traditional mainstream fare. Many are picking up the album now and playing it on-repeat. The lack of comparative bliss and quality in modern music makes Buckley’s L.P. an attractive option. Musicians are inspired by what they hear and unable to find the same level of brilliance and fascination in other albums. The timelessness of Grace makes it a year-in-year-out guide. The songs talk about love but they are never too specific and personal. The messages one hears in Mojo Pin, Last Goodbye and Lover, You Should’ve Come Over never lose their meaning and importance. We relate to the singer and his soul: we are struck by the layers and rich vocals; the perfect words and the sumptuous production. Grace is an album that is loved by many but the way everyone describes is beyond ordinary. Unlike other classic albums; Grace hits so much harder and seem to connect to a part of the heart no others do.
As I interview other artists through this year; I know Grace will come up time and time again. It resonates with the lonely and pining; it comforts those who have lost love and those in the throes of new passion. The majestic voice and direction from Jeff Buckley entice you in; the nuance of the music keeps you hooked; the way the songs reveal new life and soundtrack every important moment of life means it is more popular twenty-three years after its release. It is amazing to think an album that was released to minor applause has managed to remain in the musical bosom for all this time! Stick the record on in its true format – a vinyl on a record player – and let the music wash over you. It is a transformative experience and one that more artists should take note of. In a hard and unsure time; people are looking for the sort of comfort and protection Grace provides. I am not surprised so many young musicians are connecting with Grace and confessing their love for it. As we embrace new sounds and genres; we look ahead to the best albums to come…there is one record that never loses its relevance, quality and…