Why His Voice Remains Strong Years After His Death
Later this month, on May 29, will mark 22 years since singer Jeff Buckley died of an accidental drowning when he was only 30 years old. Following his death, his only completed studio album Grace became an instant classic, but as time marches on, I fear his name is fading from the modern musical lexicon. Like the mythical Orpheus, Buckley was a musician, a poet, and a prophet who used music to reach into people’s souls and make them feel, more so than any of his contemporaries. It’s important now to not let him fade from the conversation and to remember the work that he gave to the world, and the work that he never got to complete.
Many know of Buckley primarily for his slowed down, soulful cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Whether you first heard “Hallelujah” from “Shrek”, as I did, from Cohen’s 1984 original, or any of the other countless versions there are, there’s a very good chance you’ve come across Buckley’s cover at one point or another. It is Buckley’s rendition, originally covered by John Cale, that gave the song it’s tenderness and intimacy which makes the listener feel as if Buckley’s voice is coming from right in front of them.
The public image of Buckley, however, seems to begin and end with “Hallelujah”. Few seek out the remainder of his catalog which, although short and incomplete, reveals Buckley as the artist that he truly was. A true student of music, Buckley listened to and was inspired by every type of music, which played a huge part in the development of his own sound. Bearing the redundant comparisons to his late father, ’60s folk singer Tim Buckley, the younger Buckley worked tirelessly to distinguish himself from his father, whom he only met once. Even today, comparisons are still made between the father and son, but Jeff’s raw talent and passion for every thing artistic and human is overlooked far too often.
When I first heard “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”, it had such a genuine, profound effect on me that no song had before. For the very first time, I understood another’s emotional pain in a way that made me feel like I had been stabbed in the chest and had my heart ripped from my body. I have learned that this is not a unique feeling to have when listening to Buckley’s music, but rather it is the feeling that the music itself inspires. The power of his voice creates a song that gets under your skin and sits there, creating a weight on your chest so heavy that you can’t even begin to imagine the weight he’s feeling on himself. It’s not often a song paints a picture with a sound, but this is one of those songs.
It’s that same raw emotionality which makes Buckley stand out from the crowd of singer-songwriters. Every song takes you on an emotional journey meant to make you feel the meaning of the song, not just hear it. Along with the powerful control of his voice, this emotionality creates the distinct Jeff Buckley style that is consistent throughout his entire body of work, even the songs he did not write himself.
His covers are as eclectic as his music taste, from Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to Nina Simone’s “Be Your Husband” and Bob Dylan’s “Mama, You Been On My Mind”. Each of these sound so seamless when they appear in his catalog because of his consistent and conscientious application of his personal style. A strong blues influence, skilled guitar playing, poetic songwriting, and powerful vocals create a sound that can be heard from his first EP Live at Sin-é, which showcases his early club work, all the way through Grace, his first and only studio release, and Sketches for My Sweetheart, the Drunk, the unfinished second album of demos that was released posthumously. Because of this formula he crafted, it allows all of his songs to sound cohesive and unmistakably his, but by no means cookie-cutter. He uses his variety of influences to create a wide-range of sound, which he would have undoubtedly continued to do, but in each song, the sound is distinctly Buckley.
His first and only full length studio release Grace has become a staple of ’90s classic albums that capture the decade. Despite having the grunge look and the punk attitude, Buckley’s sound didn’t really fit either of those styles. He had the blues-based rock sound that is becoming prevalent again, but Buckley did it first. His writing is reminiscent of a heartbroken poet, and his skilled musicianship, while not reinventing the wheel, served as a vehicle for his storytelling. He didn’t feel the need to impress anyone with his skill, but was content in playing well enough to make people stop and listen to his story.
Buckley was always a club or coffee shop performer, as opposed to large arenas, and I’d like to think that he would have remained this way throughout his career. His music is the kind that demands to be heard in a tight, close space, where you can see the sweat, spit, and tears right in front of your face. Because his music has such a strong personal and emotional pull, both for him and the audience, to have him play anywhere much bigger than Sin-é would be a disservice to his music and the intimacy it deserved.
Buckley’s impact can be found all around us, from the personal collections of Stella McCartney, who remembers seeing him in early gigs, to modern artists such as the likes of Hozier, who carries Buckley’s strong storytelling in songwriting on to new heights. I often think that Jeff Buckley walked so that artists like John Mayer could run. Both artists are blues inspired, talented guitar players, and supreme songwriters. While Buckley didn’t show off his skill in guitar-playing, he shone in his writing. For Mayer, his writing, while excellent, becomes backseat in regards to his masterful skill. Mayer has even acknowledged his love for Buckley, stating on Twitter that when he hears Buckley “after some time away from his music, my chest feels like it’s going to cave in,” and on Instagram he says that he “will never stop missing [him].” To me, it is a testament to Buckley that he inspires the likes of a John Mayer in such an intense way.
For me, the real magic of Jeff Buckley lies in what we didn’t get to hear. Dying at the age of 30, he escaped being apart of the 27 club, but those extra years didn’t make losing him any easier. The story goes that he was walking by the river one night and decided to go for a swim, so he jumped in without even removing his boots. It seemed to be just another carefree action that Buckley was known for, but when a large boat came down the river, it’s unclear if Buckley got out of the way in time. He was declared missing, and would not be found for several days, during which time it was hoped that he would just walk out of the river, unscathed. But when his body was finally found on the riverbank days later, it was clear then that we had lost an artist who still had so much left to say. The tragedy is that not only was a young life lost, but he took the music with him. His second album, the one he was working on when he passed, was only released as demos, titled Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. It’s the stories he didn’t get to tell, like who was his sweetheart and why was she a drunk, that brings me back to him time after time, almost as if somewhere in the music he’s left us a clue as to where he was headed. Some think its the many posthumous releases and compilations of Buckley’s work that gives him holy status, but no posthumous release or compilation will ever be able to satisfy what could have been.
There may never be another Jeff Buckley, nor would I even want one. Buckley’s career, however short it may have been, was his and his alone. Others can carry on from where he left off, but they can never finish his story the way he could. It’s another testament to him, his music and the respect he is paid that musicians are hesitant to cover Buckley now because they know they can’t improve upon what he did. He may not have won any major awards, or had the chance to fully play out every idea he wanted to, but he has a strong reputation for being a great artist and I think that would have been well enough for him. Like Orpheus’ song, we hear Jeff Buckley all around us, from people discovering him for the first time to other artists being inspired by his work and carrying his vision. For those of us who wish we had heard more music and he could’ve gotten the formal recognition he deserved, he will be the tear that hangs inside our soul forever.