Tim Buckley is a classic might-have-been. Born in 1947, the California singer only released a handful of LPs in his career stretching from 1966 to his death of an overdose in 1975. Contemporaries speak of his angelic voice -- he had a four-octave range with no strain that could vibrate in a rich baritone or soar upwards in a clear counter-tenor.
Sadly, contemporaries also speak of uneven songwriting and of a troubled man whose life seemed to be in many ways an inexorable progression towards self-destruction. Buckley's music spoke of his poetic, dark, and richly textured mind; at various times, he dabbled in folk, rock, blues, jazz, country, soul, and American roots music. He produced albums of freeform, expressionistic sonic landscapes (1970's Starsailor) and commercial folk-rock (1974's Sefronia).
Once I Was is all this, yet none of it. A collection of three live performances (two tracks recorded in 1974, five in 1968, and one "lost" live track from a Copenhagen concert from 1968), this disc shows the vibrant power of Buckley, his range and performance skills, but never delves into the experimentation that was in some ways central to Buckley's musical career. As a live album, it's a complete work, though its effectiveness remains to be seen.. As a reflection of the artist's career, it's sadly lacking.
Each source of material needs to be looked at separately. The tracks from 1974, "Dolphins" and "Honey Man," show a Buckley who was fully immersed in soul and blues-rock. Neither song is bad; their production is acceptable, though I prefer the richer soul sound of "Dolphins" to "Honey Man"'s sparse blues.
But going from track two to track three is a jarring shift of gears, as we jump back six years to 1968 and return to Tim Buckley the folk and country artist. While all five of these tracks are good, it still requires some mental adjustment on the part of the listener to understand that this is the same artist. As with all posthumous releases, someone else chose the tracks on Once I Was, and I'm not sure they chose wisely. Some transitional material might have been nice.
That aside, the 1968 tracks provide some magnificent moments. "Coming Home To You (Happy Time)" is a lost gem of simple folk-rock, and "Morning Glory" and "Once I Was" aren't far behind. The highlight by far, however, is "Hallucinations/Troubadour," an opus of wistful, mysterious, complex guitar work that I believe isn't in print anywhere else. (The Buckley discographies I've consulted are a little confusing, given his tendency to release live albums every couple of years and two studio LPs in the same year). The final track, "I Don't Need It To Rain", highlights Buckley's vocal range, but lacks punch and is the least exciting thing on the CD.
A final complaint; a caveat emptor should be issued to the true Buckley aficionado. Once I Was is, with the addition of track eight, the exact same material released in the early nineties as Morning Glory. (Much like Jimi Hendrix, Buckley's work has been eternally repackaged and re-released since his tragic death.)
Once I Was isn't a bad album -- "Hallucinations/Troubadour" keeps it from being that - but it can be neither recommended for the Buckley fan or for the Buckley neophyte. Save your money and purchase one of Buckley's studio recordings instead.