By Hannah Wisterman
Jeff Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is the quintessential sad song, and has thus made appearances in “The West Wing”, “NCIS”, “House”, “Criminal Minds”, and on and on and on. When my high school football team lost the homecoming game my senior year, it was this song that my best friend and I played on the truck ride home. It has made it to lists of the greatest songs of all time. The video has over 90 million hits on YouTube. It seems a terrible injustice, then, that “Grace”, one of Buckley’s own original tracks, has one-fifteenth of that number of YouTube hits, despite being as emotionally ripe and masterfully performed as “Hallelujah”. In fact, it sometimes seems that in order to be familiar with Buckley’s original works, one must either have been alive when they were released, involved in the music industry, or both.
I was neither, but I had the excellent fortune of being the little sister who stole all her big sister’s interests—which included an extremely beat up copy Jeff Buckley’s Grace, the only album to be released in his short lifetime. I must have been in eighth grade when I stumbled upon it, and like any logical thirteen-year-old girl, I fell in love instantly. Buckley sings like an angel, and believe me when I say that is no exaggeration. That clear voice that could catapult to the heavens, combined with the lilting, rolling instrumentation and his soft-spoken demeanor…I was sold right away. When I learned he had died at the age of 30 –by accidental drowning, no less—my heart was broken, but at the same time, it did feel poetically apt, putting him in a similar category as Cobain and Hendrix. Since my great Jeff Buckley Revelation of 2011, I have taken it upon myself to spread the word of his music, so let’s get started!
“Grace” is an interesting track because it combines both the semi-angsty rock flavor that was high in demand in the ‘90s with subtle strings and cryptic songwriting—truly a Buckley-style reversal. But the guitars never go too grungy and the styling never gets too strange as to alienate the listener, so I consider this a good introduction to Buckley’s music. That trill at the end—woof!
2. “Mojo Pin” – Live at Glastonbury 1995
My father used to tell me stories about Jimi Hendrix going on melodic tangents so that his band and audience wouldn’t intrude on his performance—they can’t step into your song if they don’t know what you’re doing. This performance of “Mojo Pin” (which is tied for my favorite Buckley song) reminds me of those stories. You can’t possibly sing along to this because Buckley seems to be wandering through his own vocals, taking us along for the ride, through loops and trills and lilts until you’re almost dizzy. I’m also pretty fond of Buckley’s guitar playing in this performance.
3. “Nightmares By The Sea”—Demo
I had mixed feelings about including this, because it’s from an unfinished album that was released posthumously, meaning it may not have had Buckley’s complete stamp of approval. But I caved and put it in because, well, two words: that bass. It’s sultry and a little bit dark, but keep some of the melodic devices Buckley used in Grace—it really gives a great idea of what Buckley’s music would have sounded like if he had been alive along enough to develop it more. It’s also another example of Buckley’s stellar songwriting, and I find myself listening to it over and over to pick apart a different verse.
4. “So Real”—Acoustic Performance for WHFS Radio 1995
“So Real” is the other song tied for my favorite of Buckley’s work, and this performance of it hits hard every time I listen to it. It’s haunting, it’s seductive, it’s intimate, it’s got Buckley hitting notes that I think might only be audible to dogs and small children. It’s swoon-worthy, in short, and I thank whatever powers that be that someone snagged a high-quality recording of it.
5. “I Know It’s Over”
It’s not a Buckley original (it’s a cover from The Smiths), but if you’re looking for more of the bittersweet sadness that made “Hallelujah” so popular, this is right up your alley. One of the most attractive elements Buckley has is his deep sense of melancholy, and that seems to be at its ripest here. Where “Hallelujah” seems to speak on universal pain, “I Know It’s Over” is deeply personal. Many fans comment on the irony of the lyrics, as well: the song speaks of an impending end, and the line “The sea wants to take me” hits too close to home with the knowledge that Buckley drowned just a year after recording the song. But most important for me is Buckley gently crooning, “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate; it takes strength to be gentle and kind.” Truly words to hold close to your heart.
Featured illustration by Emily Castillo.