Chuck Klosterman perfectly summed up Jeff Buckley's auspicious debut, Grace, when he theorized that when it was released, it was merely a solid album that gave great hints about the emerging talent of a new singer-songwriter. But Buckley's death turned Grace into an instant classic, immortalized in its "for the moment" beauty.
Unlike other debuts covered in The Daily Vault's debut retrospective, Grace didn't bring a new genre of music to the masses or reinvent an already-existing genre. Instead, Grace was Jeff Buckley introducing himself to the music world. His father, Tim, was a singer-songwriter with a small, dedicated cult following and, like his son, died an early death. Grace followed some of Tim's jazzy and experimental song structures, but as a child growing up in the '70s and early '80s, the grandiose, heavy sounds of bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were major influences on Jeff.
Grace was recorded after Jeff Buckley honed his three-and-a-half octave voice at Sin-e, a cafe in Greenwich Village. Shortly before moving to the East Coast, Buckley graduated from the Musician's Institute in Los Angeles (which he didn't feel was worth his time). As lush and beautiful as Grace is, you can hear Jeff Buckley's respect and rebellion against the traditional path of his schooling in Los Angeles and the high expectations of his father's legacy. Take "Mojo Pin" -- the opening minute features Jeff Buckley's unmistakable vocals with very little instrumental ornamentation -- perfect coffee house music. Then, midway through, a squall of guitar feedback hits. The radical shift wasn't meant to bring a rock star presence to the coffee house, merely bring the drama and dynamics of grandiose rock music into the singer-songwriter/folk genre.
The album is emphasized with the production of Andy Wallace, the guy who helped give Nirvana's Nevermind its metallic sheen. I can imagine a few pop purists who dreamed of Jeff Buckley carrying on Tim's legacy scowled when they found out that the producer of his debut album was best known for his work with Slayer and the Run D.M.C./Aerosmith version of "Walk This Way."
The song that is Grace's signature mark, "Hallelujah," is a vocal performance so awe-inspiring that it eclipsed Leonard Cohen's version (whose voice is at least equally distinctive as Jeff Buckley, in an entirely different way). Unfortunately, that song became Grace's imprint after Buckley's death in 1997 when it was featured in countless movies, most famously in Shrek. Fortunately, most of the other songs on Grace have escaped overkill.
Highlights that instantly come to mind when listening to Grace include the gorgeous, late-summer vibe of "Last Goodbye" (supplying the album's most distinctive guitar riff) and "So Real" -- a "God, I wish I could have seen this live" song if there ever was one. Even over-dramatic imperfections are endearing, making Grace more of a snapshot of an intensely talented artist waiting to emerge than a disciplined album aiming for "album of the year" honors.
Sadly, Grace was the only full-length album of Buckley's career. Other albums (both live and outtakes) have been released, but Grace stands as both the "official" beginning and end of Buckley's career. It's doubtful that Grace would have been as lionized as it is now had Buckley went on to record other albums. The emotions, vocal howlings and big guitars initially made some cynical critics dismiss the album as being over-produced. It took his death for many of these critics to return to the album and give it a second and third listen and, eventually, give it the props it so richly deserves.
|If there is one word that can be used to summarize Grace, it is "potential." Buckley was a versatile and truly unique singer, but his songwriting skills were somewhat lacking. On Grace, the sole redemption of many of the tracks is in the raw power of Jeff's voice, which makes up for (or at least attempts to) for an apparent lack of strong melodies. Buckley was a transcendental singer - it's just too bad that his talent is best displayed in his cover of Cohen's "Hallelujah".|