Sacred Cows is an occasional series that sees an NME writer re-examine a "classic album" and ask - what the hell were people thinking?
Is there such a thing as a one-track classic? If so, I’ll stop my dismantling of the legend of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’ right here, since it contains one solitary track that stands amongst the greatest pieces of music ever committed to trembling, tear-soggy tape.
Tellingly, though, it’s one of the songs Buckley didn’t write. His stunning, soul-cracking take on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is both seminal and definitive, showcasing his breath-taking vocal flexibility and an emotional grasp on a melody that’s virtually unrivalled in modern music. In short, it made Alexandra Burke look like a twat, and ‘Grace’ is worth the asking price a dozen times over just to own it.
Thank Christ for 79p-per-track-on-iTunes though, because the other nine tracks on the album – pretty much Buckley’s entire lifetime of released material - are pretty horrific. Over-wrought, over-thought, overindulgent and over-produced, it took the fragile slowcore beauty of Red House Painters, pumped it full of major label money and let it stagger – bloated and flailing for melody – around a recording studio sounding like a major domestic between Anthony Hegarty’s mum and Anna Calvi’s dad.
Ironically, the guitar and vocal explorations that so invigorated and focussed ‘Hallelujah’ only served to muddy and confuse Buckley’s own songs. Perhaps, if Jeff’s tragic demise hadn’t come about, ‘Grace’ would’ve eventually come to be seen as a notable feet-finding album since, throughout, Buckley just doesn’t seem to know what he wants to be. For the first third of the record – ‘Mojo Pin’, ‘Grace’, ‘Last Goodbye’ - he’s rolling his smokes into his short sleeves and coming on like a blue collar early Radiohead, but one that thinks that a voice like cat swingball is a good enough replacement for a chorus.
Before long he’s turned his womanly warble to more classical traditions. ‘Lilac Wine’ finds him trying to be Billie Holliday singing ‘Strange Fruit’ so hard he over-emotes to a comical degree. On ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over’ he’s a mainstream soul balladeer and come ‘Corpus Christi Carol (For Roy)’ he’s shed entire centuries to become the world’s most histrionic choirboy, singing so ardently about wounded knights and weeping maidens it’d make Joanna Newsom feel up-to-the-minute. And having invented Wild Beasts, does he settle? Nope, here’s ‘Eternal Life’, which invents Limp Bizkit. Exactly.
So does one stone cold sliver of unfettered genius deserve an album’s worth of reverence? In this agonising company, no way. Say what you like about the internet killing music and destroying the art of the album, but at least the modern listener won’t have to purchase and plough through all this dross to get to the one saving ‘Grace’.
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