The Ever-Inspiring Grace at Twenty-Five
IT is a shame Jeff Buckley…
IN THIS PHOTO: Jeff Buckley in 1994/PHOTO CREDIT: Dave Tonge/Hulton Archive
only lived to finish one studio album because, on 1994’s Grace, he created something truly transcendent and memorable. In fact, I think Grace is one of the most influential albums ever. So many modern artists are inspired by Grace and, when speaking with musicians, so many nod to that album. Even though Buckley died in 1997, there are new videos surfacing and exciting news. Grace turns twenty-five on 23rd August and I think it warrants celebration. I will bring in other reviews of Grace but, recently, Consequence of Sound highlighted it as a classic album:
“Buckley had only one album to his name when he died, but my word, what an album it was. Grace hit shelves in 1994, arguably alternative rock’s single greatest year; its contemporaries included Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Beck’s Mellow Gold, Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, Hole’s Live Through This, Green Day’s Dookie, and Weezer’s (first) self-titled album, to name just a few. The question isn’t whether or not Grace was superior to them — you can decide that one for yourself — but it sounded so fundamentally unlike those other albums that it might as well have come from another era. American alternative rock (as opposed to Britpop) was iconoclastic, disdainful of the hubris and hedonism of classic rock; moreover, it sounded ugly, and it dealt with ugly emotions.
…Instead, Buckley drew from a vast range of other influences, and they manifest on Gracein creative, inexact ways. The title track, with its fleet guitar and mystic lyrics, sounds as if Van Morrison attempted to write a full-on rock song; at the same time, I can’t name a Morrison song that it reminds me of. Ditto for “Eternal Life”, which openly (but not obviously) reflects Buckley’s love of Led Zeppelin with their overdriven guitar riffs and thundering drums. (It’s the closest Buckley came to grunge, sounding similar to Soundgarden or early Pearl Jam.) Even his take on “Lilac Wine”, which is clearly indebted to Nina Simone’s version three decades prior, comes across less like mere mimicry and more like a genuine attempt to recreate the song’s magic for himself — which he succeeds at, replacing the stark piano of Simone’s cover with guitar reverb and cymbal rolls that enhance the song’s midnight glow”.
On 23rd August, there are going to be Grace anniversary releases and it will be a rare chance to hear live recordings and demos that many will be unaware of. There is debate as to whether the archives should be closed and whether it is right to keep mining Buckley’s work – from the rough sketches through to studio recordings. I would usually object to the vaults being cleaned out but, as Grace is such a pivotal album, it is a good move.
Referring to the review above, one thing stands out: the originality and surprise of a Grace-like album arriving in 1994; at a time when Soundgarden and Grunge was still popular. I discovered Buckley’s music when I was in high-school and I recall Grace coming along in 1994. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Britpop and bands like Blur; Oasis were coming through and it was a wonderful time for music. I think 1994 is the strongest year for music and, aside from a few years in the 1970s, it is hard to think of a time where there was so much magic and wonder in the air. Grace is an album that received some caution and underwhelming reviews at the time. There were very few artists like Buckley and, at a time when a more sensitive tone was not familiar in the mainstream, was Buckley ahead of his time? Apart from Tori Amos’ Under the Pink, few of the most popular albums of 1994 displayed the same beauty, sense of emotion and…grace. In fact, Amos’ album is a lot rawer than Grace so, in many ways, there was nothing for critics to compare Buckley with. Retrospective reviews have been a lot more fevered and positive. I think Buckley stood out on his own in 1994 so it was hard to know what to make of the album. As so many songwriters have been influenced by Buckley, Grace has continued to rise in popularity, mystique and importance. From Anna Calvi and Thom Yorke to Matt Bellamy and PJ Harvey, you can hear elements of Buckley in them.
IN THIS PHOTO: Jeff Buckley in 1994/PHOTO CREDIT: Anton Corbijn
In fact, Radiohead’s career took an important and dramatic turn when they watched Buckley perform in London. This was when the band were making The Bends and, after a particularly charged gig, Thom Yorke rushed to the studio to record Fake Plastic Trees. Overcome by the emotion and purity of the moment, he burst into tears and, as such, the album mixed tender and more sensitive songs with heavier numbers – one wonders whether the album would have been as celebrated were it not for the influence of Jeff Buckley. I shall come back to my experiences of Buckley’s music but, in another review of Grace, Drowned in Sound talk about the way the album pares the familiar and strikingly original so well:
“Few albums have displayed so many influences and yet sounded so wholly original. Jeff included three covers – ‘Lilac Wine’, ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ – all of which will surely come to be embedded in the popular consciousness as Jeff’s own. The fact that Benjamin Britten and Leonard Cohen share album space is testament to Jeff’s virtuosity. You can also hear shades of the Cure in the swirling guitars of ‘Dream Brother’ and Jimmy Page-style riffing as ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over’ reaches its zenith.
Some may hold this album responsible for spawning various falsetto singing clones but they will never hit upon the heart of Jeff Buckley. How many lovelorn troubadours have succeeded in writing a lyric as vivid but simple as "My kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder"? How many acoustic bands have matched that perfect triumphant climax in ‘Last Goodbye’? The answer, to my ears, is not many.
The fact that some of the material on the posthumous album ‘Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk’ could have been even better than ‘Grace’ only serves to magnify the tragedy of Jeff’s death. However, let’s be glad that we still have some of Jeff’s music to cherish. ‘Grace’ is not a depressing album for me. In fact, there are moments when I can almost ‘hear’ Jeff smile as he realises that he has created something truly glorious”.
Grace is that combination of the more reflective and sadder but, in every moment, there is yearning, hope and light. Just listen to his iconic rendition of Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah and you hear so much intimacy and beauty. It is a magnificent song and, rightly, is considered one of the finest covers ever. As an artist, I feel Buckley’s lyrics are underrated. From the visions of rain falling on funeral mourners in Lover, You Should’ve Come Over to the urgency of love on Grace, he is a fantastic and thought-provoking writer. He can write in a very personal way but ensure his songs resonate with people around the world. Rather than discuss love and longing in a very cliched way, Buckley manages to frame these feelings in a fresh and intriguing way. Maybe it is Buckley’s musical upbringing – artists like Led Zeppelin and Joni Mitchell playing a big role – that contributes to that fantastic sound.
I think a lot of Grace’s brilliance can be traced back to the year or two before (1994) when he was cutting his teeth and gigging around New York. If you have not heard Buckley in full flight at Sin-é (in 1993) then you really need to check it out! I think smaller and more personal spaces like this allowed Buckley to experiment and, I don’t know, see how his songs connected with a small audience. A few of Grace’s tracks are quite dramatic but I feel he designed the album for the individual; music that gets into the soul rather than songs that are meant for stadiums and huge crowds. As the more sensitive singer-songwriter has become more commonplace, Grace is a guide and huge source of inspiration. Some albums from 1994 sound dated or not so familiar today but Grace seems more relevant – again, it was well ahead of its time! I have been following Buckley’s music since 1994 and it still creates shivers when I listen. Grace is his sole studio album but, just before his death, he was working on a second album: My Sweetheart the Drunk was, from the material available, a more eclectic and slightly edgier album than Grace. It’s a tragedy Buckley was taken at the age of thirty and I do wonder what sort of music he would be making if he was alive today.
On 23rd August, I hope there are celebrations of a truly remarkable album. It is considered one of the best albums of the 1990s and, looking back at 1994, how could so many people have overlooked Grace, even if the scene was embracing other sounds and artists?! It is a strange thing, but I am glad this classic album has grown and grown through the years and continues to inspire artists. As I said, so many people I have spoken to have Buckley to thank for helping realise their sound and path. If you have not heard Grace then go and buy it and experience the magic. It is such a varied, touching and powerful album that grabs the senses and pulls you in. Twenty-five years after its release, this sensational work is still revealing its secrets and moving musicians. To be fair, the legacy and essence of Jeff Buckley will never die – he is ingrained into so many musicians brand-new and established alike. The new releases and the anniversary edition of Grace will be a treat for fans and, just a couple of days ago, I asked whether more classic albums should get special editions where we can experience demos and alternate takes. Who knows what modern music would be without the fantastic Grace?! As this titanic album turns twenty-five, put it on, close eyes and surrender. From the potency of Grace to the heartache of Last Goodbye; the angelic vocal on Corpus Christi Carol to the hard-hitting Eternal Life, Grace is a …