An album of lost Jeff Buckley songs has been made available to stream online, nineteen years after the singer’s death. Mark Beaumont shares his first thoughts on ‘You And I’.
Before ‘Grace’ was anything more than a tickle in Jeff Buckley’s golden tonsils, he was already a master interpreter. The arch, evocative passion that made his take on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ one of the best cover versions ever recorded was evident during his days playing to handfuls of East Village barflies, wrapped inwardly in the folds of the cover songs he’d perform, drawing the crowd in with their intimacy as though they were witness to a very private seduction or a spectacularly successful edition of First Dates.
Trouble was, Jeff barely had any songs of his own and little idea which direction he wanted to follow when the major label scrum to sign him kicked off, so signature winners Columbia came up with a cunning ruse. Put him into Steve Addabbo’s Shelter Island Sound studio in February 1993 with producer Steve Berkowitz for a day and let him play, freely explore his styles and inclinations, in the hope that the Jeff Buckley he wanted to become would emerge.
One day turned to three, comprising take upon take of Jeff stamping his inimitable mark of enigmatic bohemian lustre upon tracks by The Smiths, Sly And The Family Stone, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin and putting down snippets of ideas he heard in his dreams or early versions of his own formative songs. The cream of this collection, dusted down from the archive, makes up ‘You And I’, the missing link in Buckley’s development from bar bawler to 1994’s debut album ‘Grace’.
From the off, Buckley’s raw art roars from the speakers. Tackling Dylan’s ‘Just Like A Woman’ he knits and weaves gossamer guitar trails while unleashing his tremulous, exploratory tones in a gloriously spectral display. Few singers have ever picked their way so intricately from frail whisper to impassioned yowl but Buckley builds his emotional resonance layer by layer, sounding not unlike a brilliantly melodic werewolf transformation.
His talents shines brightest on the ballads; funk tracks like Sly’s ‘Everyday People’ and the evergreen blues of Gerry And The Pacemakers’ ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ don’t quite give him enough Launchpad to go truly stratospheric, but Bob Telson’s ‘Calling You’ is a fabulous showcase for his warblesome wonder.
Diehards will slaver over the sparse but defiant early demo of ‘Grace’ – almost a premonition of late-90s Radiohead – and the delicate snippet-piece ‘The Dream Of You And I’, in which Buckley talks Berkowitz through a semi-song he heard in a dream about a university AIDS rally just to get it down on tape. His conversational moments, too, are insightful; like Conor Oberst at the start of Bright Eyes’ ‘At The Bottom Of Everything’ his tone is one of expressive poetry, full of sprawling ideas and unclaspable imagery. It makes it all the sadder he never even got to TFI Friday.
If classic folk, funk and blues songs are par for the café singer course, it’s the Smiths covers that will inevitably draw the most attention here, and with good reason. His soul expansion of ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ sounds like Morrissey having a fit in the Jazz Café and his ‘I Know It’s Over’, deeply ironic in retrospect, will come to rival his ‘Hallelujah’ in volume of tears jerked. A masterclass in the art of making songs your own, and a window on a great talent’s tentative baby steps.
Stream the album below