So Real

Jeff Buckley

Columbia/Legacy, 2007

http://www.jeffbuckley.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/02/2007

It’s amazing sometimes how differently the music can hit you, depending on where you are emotionally versus where the artist is.

Over the years I tried out Jeff Buckley at least twice before, but both times I made a crucial mistake; I was in active, upbeat, impatient, power-pop/hard rock kind of moods.  I found his material slow and self-conscious and his voice too soft and quavery to appeal.  I read the worshipful bon mots from other reviewers, sure, but I didn’t *get* it; the music just failed to resonate with me.

And then the other night, feeling quiet and contemplative and a little more open-minded, I pulled this brand-new disc from the DV in-box and OH.  MY.  GOD.  I won’t even try to be original here; I’ll just quote Ben Folds’ characteristically to-the-point commentary from the liner notes: “Holy fucking shit this guy can sing.”

Surely there is an extra element of hype present here because Buckley died young, following in the tragic footsteps of his musician father, and because he happens to sing like an angel kidnapped from heaven.  But at this point, having concluded not once but twice that the legend of Jeff Buckley was overblown, I feel like I can speak about the merits of these tracks from somewhere beyond the hype.

The emotion Buckley pours into these performances is the stuff singers typically both wish desperately they could deliver and are desperately terrified of actually letting out.  So many singer-songwriter types rely on a sort of smoldering suggestion of intensity roiling around inside, whereas Buckley simply opens the floodgates and leaves it dripping all over the floor.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

As a result, the listener who comes into this album (or Grace, or just about any other Buckley collection; he had only issued one complete studio album at the time of his death) only familiar with the TV/movie soundtrack favorite “Hallelujah” – a reverent, exquisite cover of the mournful Leonard Cohen tune – may find the harrowing punk-metal fury of “Eternal Life” startling.  The thing is, Buckley delivers both songs from the exact same interior space, the emotionally naked core of one of the most committed performers I’ve ever heard.

“Last Goodbye,” this collection’s pitch-perfect opener, is in fact more typical Buckley, a mid-tempo full-band number anchored by surging acoustic rhythm guitar, over which Buckley sings a raw confessional lyric in a voice so infused with genuine emotion that it makes you want to weep tears of joy or sorrow or both.

It’s easy to imagine the A&R guys back in the day drooling over smoky white soul numbers like “Everybody Here Wants You,” but Buckley’s musical vision was much too expansive for that.  He might trick you along in that vein with the straight-up opening verses of a soulful number like “Lover, You Should Have Come Over,” but by the end he’s wrung so much from every single syllable of the song that you feel like hosing off your stereo. 

There’s a piquant, almost prophetic sense of loss running through these tracks that remind me a bit tonally (if not musically) of Death Cab For Cutie, and I expect I’ll come to feel about Buckley much as I do about Death Cab – love to listen to it once or twice a month in a quiet moment, but it’s not regular-rotation material; the core of sadness running through the music is just too intense.  I also found myself thinking of Buckley at one point as a kind of reverse-image doppelganger of Jim Morrison – the same arresting rawness and tortured-poet persona, but all light and sorrow as opposed to Morrison’s darkness and anger.

In terms of comparing this collection with others like it, I honestly can’t, this being the only Buckley disc I own.  What I can tell you is that So Real collects prime cuts from Grace (both the original and the Legacy Edition version), the posthumously-released Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, and the live disc Live At Sin-E, adding the promotional-single-only track “So Real” and a previously unreleased live cover of the Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over.”  For what it’s worth, the latter two rare tracks are both excellent, and the production and mastering throughout is crisp and clear.

The first blog entry I ever read by the very talented Heather Browne made Jeff Buckley sound like some sort of avatar of musical brilliance.  I have liked virtually everything else she has ever recommended -- and now, the holy grail.  Folks, if you’ve ever sat alone in a room late at night and contemplated the meaning of it all, you need some Jeff Buckley in your music collection.  It’s just that simple.

Rating: A

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© 2007 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia/Legacy, and is used for informational purposes only.