Graded on a Curve:
Jeff Buckley, Grace

I’ll be the first to admit I go in for sacred cow tipping, but it can be a dangerous business, as the cow may just turn around and kick you in the ass. But I can’t help myself when it comes to the late Jeff Buckley, whose promising career was cut short when he drowned in Wolf River Harbor on May 29, 1997. I’ve been listening to Buckley’s only completed studio LP, 1994’s universally acclaimed Grace, for days, and I still can’t decide whether he was a histrionic twit with operatic tendencies and a SONG DESTROYER, or a stone cold genius.

I hear flashes of brilliance galore, but he overdoes it on the vocals, I assume because he just couldn’t help himself, and by so doing DESTROYED SONGS, and in the end it’s the moments when he isn’t busy EMOTING I like most. The voice! people say. That voice! But it’s his damnation on songs like “Corpus Christi Carol,” which is the kind of overly precious drivel I steer clear of prodigies to avoid, and even on “Hallelujah,” which it is blasphemy to criticize. On the other hand, “Eternal Life” demonstrates that he might have made a great rocker had he just toned down the tonsillar gymnastics.

As I say Grace was praised to the skies, and it’s apostasy to question its brilliance. The critics fell over themselves smooching it, and the late David Bowie went so far as to say it was the one album he’d take with him to a desert island, and even Brad Pitt weighed in on its sublime genius. But I think it’s flawed, fatally so in some places, and find myself agreeing with Robert Christgau, the only critic who didn’t prostrate himself before the LP upon its release. Indeed, Christgau savaged it, calling Buckley a “syncretic asshole, beholden to Zeppelin and Nina Simone and Chris Whitley and the Cocteau Twins and his mama–your mama too if you don’t watch out,” before concluding, “So let us pray the force of hype blows him all the way to Uranus.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but I can’t understand why everybody bows before it either. When I listen to Buckley what I hear is a guy who made it his goal in life to fuse Led Zeppelin with Coldplay, and then took the results and oversang them in a voice that was half choirboy and half Chris Cornell. Which is to say he had an amazing voice, but he was too young and unseasoned to know how to employ it with some restraint.

The songs have grown on me, I’ll concede that much. I didn’t get him at all at first, thought his vocals were overwrought and as I said earlier, SONG DESTROYING. And such is the case, I think, on his version of “Hallelujah,” which is too precious for words. I’ll take a straight reading of the song, by any of the hundreds of singers who have ever sung the song, over Buckley’s version, which proves he can sing but doesn’t have a clue as to how to sing this song. He’s a warbler, people, a delicate petal, a sensitive flower, and the way he twists the title of the song proves it. And that guitar! It’s sensitive too! I bet they both cried when Tom Hanks saw Wilson the volleyball swept overboard in Cast Away! (Okay, so I cried too: sue me.)

That said, I’ve grown to enjoy his Led Zeppelin fixation, which infuses the entire LP with the exception of songs like “Corpus Christi Carol” and “Lilac Wine,” both of which are truly unlistenable—songs I would go to the far ends of the earth to avoid hearing. But opener “Mojo Pin,” despite its slow opening and Buckley’s warbling, takes a cool Led Zep turn in the middle, with big Jimmy Page riffs and John Bonham drum bashing and Buckley doing his best Robert Plant imitation. Which leaves me both loving and hating it, which is how I feel about the better part of Grace.

The title track is a stellar tune, with a sprightly beat and some lovely guitar strum, and Buckley for the most part curbs his more operatic tendencies. Indeed, his vocals are downright impressive, especially when he lets loose at the end, along with the rest of the band. The only thing it lacks is the Led Zeppelin opening of “Last Goodbye,” another excellent song on which Buckley resists the urge to oversing. Instead his vocals successfully walk the high wire above the abyss of pomposity. Unfortunately such is not the case with “Lilac Wine,” which I have already libeled. You can call its jazzbo tendencies and Buckley’s warbling lovely or annoying as all fuck, and I’ll give you two guesses as to what I think.

“So Real” is a full-on Led Zeppelin rip, with a little Coldplay thrown in; I’d write it off as sluggish and meandering if it weren’t for the truly inspired but too brief moment of pure guitar mayhem that neatly bisects it. Oh, and the Coldplay-heavy chorus is okay by me. As for “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over,” I don’t care for Loris Holland’s church lady organ introduction, but the melody is lovely and I do appreciate the fact that Buckley refrains from turning it into high opera. Holland makes up for her intro by playing some nice fills, and the song builds to an excellent climax that involves more than just Buckley’s vocals. (Okay, so he does overdo it a bit at the end. But I’ll write it off to youth, or excessive estrogen levels from pot smoking, or something.)

“Eternal Life” is, as I’ve mentioned, a wonderful hard rocker. Buckley possessed the chops to sing hard rock, and I like the hard rock Buckley more than I ever will the sensitive Buckley. Meanwhile, closer “Dream Brother” has an eerie Middle Eastern-flavored opening and includes a tabla, and reminds me of Radiohead or Coldplay. I don’t like the soft section but I do enjoy the keening vocals and the nice drone and the way that it, once again, turns into a Led Zeppelin song. Too bad he slips into a falsetto at the end that I find frankly nauseating.

I’ve searched my mind, but I can’t think of another LP I feel such ambivalence towards. I’ve come to appreciate what everybody was so excited about, but I will swear to the end of my days that Buckley overdid it, prettying things up when he would have been better off exercising some restraint. I listen to his live version of “Kick Out the Jams” and I hear greatness; then I listen to his take on “Lost Highway” and I hear a guy who wouldn’t know self-restraint if it fell on his head like an air conditioner from a 53rd floor window. When I listen to Grace what I hear isn’t brilliance; I hear enormous potential, and what might have been but will never be, because the poor guy decided to take a nice swim and got caught in the wake of a passing tugboat. Which drowned him, which is terrible, but I suspect has colored the response to Grace ever since. It’s a cold fact, but people seem to prefer their sacred cows dead.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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  • Marc

    While I respect your evaluation of ‘Grace’, you seem to fall into the same critical abyss in which you fault the album. You cannot possibly understand the fine vocalizations and arrangements of the songs if you reference Coldplay and Led Zeppelin in comparison. The beauty of this record is in its’ randomness and Buckey’s unrestrained and truthful vocal delivery of these songs. He will always be remembered as a prodigy and prolific performer as well as a sensitive soul who produced one of the defining albums of the 90’s. May he continue to Rest In Peace. Hallelujah!

  • Michael Little

    This article is nonsense, complete nonsense I tell you! Signed, The Author

  • Michael Little

    Who is the idiot that penned this garbage? He should be tarred and feathered, the poltroon! Signed, The Author.

  • Marc

    C’mon Mr. Little, be Mr. Big and admit to your editorial immaturity.
    OK, I absolutely agree with your critique so you won’t have anything else to write. Whew! Relief at last!
    And remember – everyone is entitled to my opinion.

  • Joe Como

    That’s cute, commenting on your own article. There are some weak tracks on Grace (“Corpus Christi Carol” and “Forget Her” are both best… uh, forgotten) but the first 7 songs are one stellar showing after another.

    Unlike you, I’m not allergic to someone expressing sensitivity or believe that a high singing voice indicates one has excess levels of estrogen (which you seem to dislike, probably as a defense mechanism to protect your obviously vulnerable sense of masculinity). Of course what one likes in music is a matter of taste and thus subjective, but I have to say, I do think your taste sucks balls.

    Too bad they sent a caveman to review a record of a guy who had the voice of an angel. Please do try to find time to grow up and attempt to become something other than a sexist knob who forgot to pay his brain bill.

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