Music Features

Happy Anniversary... Grace

It’s been two whole decades since the release of Jeff Buckley’s seminal – and only – album, Grace. No Ripcord writers Carl Purvis and Joe Rivers compared notes on what the record means to them.

When discussing Grace with Joe a couple of weeks ago, and specifically when we first heard the record, I realised that the album was about sixteen years old before I’d ever listened to it properly. At that time, four years ago now, I was in the middle of a passionate debate regarding the best albums of the ‘90s. A friend of mine mentioned Grace as one of his contenders, and I sheepishly passed off his suggestion, annoyed that I’d never got round to listening to such a revered album, and determined to move onto a record that I could wax lyrical over instead.

Naturally, I made a promise to listen to it at the first opportunity, and that came that night, back in the confines of my bedroom, with Spotify open in front of me, still miffed as to why such a mercurial record had not been streamed through my headphones before. That was it. From the mystic opening of Mojo Pin, with its tangled arpeggio, angelic harmonics and that voice oohing over the snuggest of mystique, I was weakened; completely unprepared for the otherworldly textures that Jeff Buckley had arranged.

Joe’s story was slightly different…

In the early years of the 21st Century, my musical education was afforded to me by countless hours spent slumped on the sofa watching MTV2. One day, a song by an artist I’d only heard mentioned briefly in magazines made me sit up and take notice. The artist was Jeff Buckley and the song was Grace. It began with a riff that seemed to float in from another realm, and the chords seemed doom-laden yet somehow beautiful at the same time. And that voice. Singers are often described as angelic or otherworldly, but I felt I’d never heard vocals so pure and expressive.

I rushed online, logged into KaZaA (this was around the turn of the millennium, remember) and downloaded the song. Over the next few months, I listened to Grace repeatedly, becoming more and more familiar with its structure, lyrics and melodies but, as a high school student, never having enough money to purchase the accompanying album. Between Christmas and New Year in my local record shop, I spied the album for just £4.99. I had some money on me, but I couldn’t afford to both buy the CD and get the bus back to my parents’. I borrowed some money from my girlfriend at the time, purchased the album, and had sufficient change to enjoy the privilege of delayed and inefficient transport home. Two weeks later, that girl and I broke up, and thinking about it now, I’m not sure I ever gave her that money back (sorry, Naomi).

I invested a lot of time in that album but could never quite get it – it just seemed too impenetrable for a green teenager who listened to pop-punk and nu-metal. Then, one glorious day, it just clicked, and everything made sense. The swooning slide up the frets that open Last Goodbye; the distortion and wheezing that precede the intimately whispered, “I love you”, on So Real; the hypnotic, looped riff that runs through Dream Brother – these all became indispensable moments in an album of incredible songs.

In the case of both Joe and myself, we came across the album several years after its release, and in my case well over a decade. One of us was taken in by it straight away, and it took some time to breach the other’s defences. This is absolutely indicative of Grace the album, and testament to Jeff’s songwriting. The most prone emotions steer clear of self-permissiveness to leave a raw bloom that saunters at will into the eye of the beholder. The translucence will inevitably be contravened eventually, even if it isn’t straight away. To me, it truly is the epitome of an album that inexplicably evades your library for so long, only to usurp the vast majority of records you count among your favourites to occupy an absurdly lofty perch in any ‘Top Albums’ list you will ever compile. Buckley’s approach to music was almost schizophrenic, constantly tantalising by keeping his components on the longest of leads, teetering on the edge of control, whilst always maintaining the ability to rein them in before total chaos ensued.

It’s impossible to talk about Grace without constantly referring to that voice. It’s quite simply, remarkable, achieving such range, predominantly with a head voice. It goes without saying that that particular aspect is showcased no more outrageously than in the last minute of Grace the title track, never failing to astonish. Vocal restraint was never very high on Buckley’s list of priorities, and that is undoubtedly a key factor in why he will always be regarded by most circles as one of the most wildly talented artists of a generation. At the times when he did show that restraint, the effect was equally as sublime - see the gorgeous Last Goodbye. His pipes are still the most versatile I’ve ever come across, with their ability to adapt to a plethora of genres without ever failing to impress, even managing to both jettison and pay homage to Plant, Page and co. in Eternal Life.

The ability of Buckley to construct arrangements and textures that are so intensely evoking is still second to none. I’ve already touched on the penetrating beauty of Mojo Pin, but it’s impossible not to refer to the gorgeous sashay that is Lover, You Should Have Come Over. Never before had such a bewitching chord progression be garnished so perfectly by such an alluring vocal. Joe also had effusive comments on the arrangements Buckley managed to synthesise, further hammering home the sagacity of this distinguished trait...

What’s truly phenomenal about Grace is just how perfectly it’s judged. It’s an album full of raw emotions that are pushed to the surface, yet it never feels mawkish or overwrought. Its songs are complex and often don’t follow traditional structures, but it’s neither indulgent nor opaque. Buckley’s label, Columbia, were keen to develop him as a long-term, heritage artist, and it’s easy to see why. Buckley’s hours and hours of practice and study at Hollywood’s Musicians Institute, plus his wide range of influences, from Ray Charles to the Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, meant he had an innate understanding of songwriting. On Grace, he covers James Shelton’s Lilac Wine, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Benjamin Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol, and Buckley’s original compositions are fit to go toe to toe with any of those three.

If you research what contemporary critics and writers have to say about Grace today, though, there’s plenty who dismiss some aspects of the acclaim that it has received over the past two decades. One recurring critique is the fact that three tracks from his first LP are not originals, but no matter how many times his decision to dedicate nearly a third of his debut album to covers is scoffed at, the intimacy and execution of the cover versions can only be regarded as outstanding. His interpretation of Lilac Wine is both cynical and beautiful, whilst everybody knows that his take on Hallelujah is bewilderingly stunning. Buckley’s ability to weave his own audacious, fearless prowess around the compositions of others is arguably as impressive as his own songwriting. 

As sad as it is, though, due to his untimely death at thirty years of age, Buckley’s legacy is ultimately defined by Grace. Joe made an excellent point on this front, too, remarking on the influence such a tragically fledgling career still managed to have on what has followed…

Twenty years on, it’s easy to be dismissive of Grace. Buckley’s untimely passing less than three years after its release meant the world was deprived of a proper follow-up, and has meant that the celebrity death cult has become part of his myth. The appetite for more Jeff Buckley material has resulted in a myriad of reissues and compilations, each more inessential than the last (though it should be pointed out that the expanded edition of Live At Sin-É is an astonishing record, and a must for any Buckley devotee). Also, Buckley’s distinctive vocal style spawned a raft of inferior imitators, and it’s dispiriting to think there’s a lineage from Jeff Buckley to Starsailor (a band named after a Tim Buckley album, no less), but it’s not too much of a stretch to join the dots.

Don’t get me wrong, Grace is a record that is by no means perfect. It has that remarkable, capricious ability to startle, and is a showcasing of an outrageous, raw talent, alarmingly unique, impossibly versatile and drop dead gorgeous to boot. Buckley never did get that chance to hone that rawness, but none of that should take away from the power, poise and perfection of Grace. Two decades on, people are still discovering the potency of Jeff Buckley’s fifty minutes of alchemy, and long may they continue to do so. I can only hope that others are like Joe, and are lucky enough to discover it relatively early in their lives as he did. Not to worry if you don’t though… I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Happy Birthday, Grace.