When he died, aged 30 in 1997, Jeff Buckley immediately passed from acclaimed singer-songwriter into classic rock and roll myth.
The abandoned son of Tim Buckley, blessed with a choir-boy voice that astonished music critics when he wrapped it around songs by Judy Garland, Leonard Cohen and his own emotionally charged originals, Jeff died the death of a greek tragedy; drowning in somewhere called the Wolf River.
He would have been 45 today and with one biopic announced and at least another one rumoured to be taking place, the cult of Buckley doesn’t look like its going to go away anytime soon.
His debut album ‘Grace’, released in 1994, wasn’t an immediate commercial success. It was only years later that its true impact was felt. Radiohead got in there early – 1995’s ‘The Bends’ owed ‘Grace’ a huge debt.
But the mainstream didn’t follow suit until the turn of the millennium. The new breed of male singer-songwriters who picked up acoustic guitars and sang in falsetto – Damien Rice, Travis’ Fran Healy and Coldplay’s Chris Martin – all followed Jeff Buckley’s lead.
True, his disciples may have touched on the beige, but that’s only because Buckley himself was utterly unique. Those who came in his wake found they couldn’t replicate what he had made look so easy. Not encumbered by boundaries, he pushed his vocal into previously unchartered territories, channeling both the shamanic power of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the other wordly feminine power of the Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser.
These strange vocal affectations produced stuff like ‘Corpus Christi Carol’, which sounded it had been beamed in from heaven, while the best of his own stuff veered from jagged Led Zeppelin rock outs to the grungy loop of ‘Last Goodbye’.
‘Grace’ was the only album released in his lifetime and the collection of posthumous recordings ‘Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk’ veered sometimes uncomfortably between the impressionistic and squall-like – though single ‘Everybody Here Wants You’ was the exception: an oasis of soulfulness and clarity in an otherwise murky and difficult album.
It showed an artist in deep transition, shaking off the shackles of what he had been, and trying to find a new, more authentic voice. It’s an uncomfortable fact to acknowledge, but much as fans idolise the singer’s angelic, choirboy side, Buckley himself felt caged by that perception.
At the time he died, Buckley was bent on transforming himself into something punkier, more awkward, less melodic. It feels like he would have continued to veer out towards the avant-garde rather than back to the sound of ‘Grace’. It goes without saying that it would have been a pleasure to see how he would develop as an artist.
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