Ten years later Grace holds relevence
Jeff Buckley died on May 29th, 1997. I had no idea who he was on this day ten years ago, so I wasn’t sad. Absolutely nothing of interest, other than my mother’s birthday, happened on that day ten years ago… to me. However, if it’s possible to be retroactively depressed over someone’s passing, then it happened to me when I finally found out Jeff Buckley had died on May 29th, 1997.
I listened to Grace in its entirety for the first time in the winter of 2003. My friend put it in the CD player in my car and we drove around Oklahoma City and smoked cigarettes. It was cold, painfully cold. We had the windows rolled down and the heater on full (which is a recurring trend in my life and one of my favorite things to do).
We listened to the whole album from start to finish, and I was heartbroken. When our listening excursion came to its conclusion, my friend, Isaiah, told me Jeff Buckley drowned in 1997.
There is some confusion and some slight mystery surrounding his passing. He knew how to swim, yet somehow drowned in slow moving water in the Wolf River Harbor, a tributary of the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had recently relocated to work on a new album. His friends and family insist there is no mystery, and it was an accident; they have completely ruled the possibility of suicide.
Later on in my life, upon my return trip from Bonnaroo 2006, my friends and I stopped in Memphis to do the eeriest thing I’ve ever done in my life. We drove by Mud Island Sound where we thought Buckley died. I was the only person in both vehicles who found this event even remotely significant– but, it turns out, it wasn’t at all. That wasn’t even the spot of his passing. We (and by that, I mean I) just wanted to pay tribute and show some appreciation and respect. I don’t know why… he probably wouldn’t give a shit anyway.
In any case, Grace is the quintessential relationship album. No album ever again in the history of time will ever be a better relationship album–it’s also the only complete and finished studio album released by Jeff Buckley. Listening to Grace now seems like listening to a ghost tell of his love life. But it’s not just his love life he’s singing about–this ghost is singing about mine and yours, too. It’s really about everybody’s respective love lives. Grace is the soundtrack, in one way or the other, to every relationship I’ve ever had.
The album opens with “Mojo Pin” a narrative about a heroin addict wishing to reconnect with a lost love.
“If only you’d come back to me / if you’d lay at my side / I wouldn’t need no Mojo Pin to keep me satisfied”…”The welts of your scorn, my love, give me more / Send whips of opinion down my back, give me more / Well, it’s you I’ve waited my life to see / it’s you I’ve searched so hard for. ”
The second track, the title track, “Grace” is one of the creepiest moments to ever occur in the realm of music.
“There’s the moon asking me to stay /Long enough for the clouds to fly me away/ Well, it’s my time coming / I’m not afraid to die…and she weeps on my arm/ walking to the bright lights in sorrow/ oh, drink a bit of wine, we both might go tomorrow / Oh my love, and the rain is falling and I believe my time has come/ It reminds me of the pain I might leave, leave behind/ Wait in the fire. Then to finally sum it all up: And I feel them drown my name / So easy to know and forget with this kiss / I’m not afraid to go, but it goes so slow.”
The third track, “Last Goodbye” is one of my personal favorites.
“Kiss me, please kiss me / But kiss me out of desire, babe, and not consolation / You know it makes me so angry / ‘Xause I know that in time/ I’ll only make you cry, this is our last goodbye / Did you say ‘no, this can’t happen to me?’/ And did you rush to the phone to call / Was there a voice unkind in the back of your mind / Saying maybe you didn’t know him at all…?”
The fourth track is a cover; if the mood is right I still might shed a tear or two even now after hearing this whole album no fewer than 33 times. “Lilac Wine” is about isolation (catching onto the theme here?).
“When I think more than I want to think / Do things I never should do / I drink much more that I ought to drink / because it brings me back you…”
The fifth track, “So Real” is, to me, about running into an ex and talking about how great your relationship was (even though you broke up, so it couldn’t have been that great) and then having the ‘brilliant’ idea to try again. It’s probably going to end horribly.
“Love, let me sleep tonight on you couch / And remember the smell of the fabric / Of your simple city dress / Oh, that was so real.”
Next is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which everyone has heard many times, and uses biblical allegories to elaborate on a supreme disdain for women’s emotional string-tugging. But it also succeeds in revealing that love kind of sucks, but its completely necessary and wonderful. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people hear it and say something like, “Oh! It’s the Shrek song!” This is just a flippant and dismissive description of a great piece of songwriting. It’s troubling. I was told once that Leonard Cohen described Buckley’s version as the way it should have been performed originally, and there’s no doubt to me who’s version is better (hint: Jeff Buckley’s). Because of the line in “Hallelujah” in this song, I sometimes get excited in the rare instances I’m around any Lord praising.
“Remember when I moved in you / and the Holy dove was moving, too / And every breath we drew was Hallelujah.”
The seventh track is “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over,” and it’s about breaking up (surprise!) but not about being broken up. Rather it’s about the slow, gradual disintegration relationships can go through. You can almost feel his agony at the whole thing falling to pieces.
“Lonely is the room, the bed is made, the open window lets the rain in / Burning in the corner is the only one who dreams he had you with him / My body turns and yearns for a sleep that won’t ever come.”
“Eternal Life” is track nine, and if it sounds familiar that’s because it basically lays the framework for every Incubus song to date, at least vocally (except for the tracks on their often overlooked and underappreciated 1997 release, Science, which was outstanding). Brandon Boyd has openly admitted he is a huge Jeff Buckley fan and has in a least one magazine article admitted Jeff Buckley’s song “Grace” to be his favorite song of all time.
Finally, the last track, “Dream Brother,” is my favorite of the entire album. If I could have written any song in history I would have written this one. Yes, I’m serious. Even over than “Like a Rolling Stone” and “In My Life” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” This song is perfect. It is, ostensibly, about infidelity. Infidelity that takes place in the same ethereal fantasy realm Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” takes place in, but probably only a couple towns away. It has a sense of mysticism about it. Listening to it is like listening to a life you cannot understand because you’re afraid to connect to it, but you want to…desperately.
“Don’t be like the one who made me so old / Don’t be like the one who left behind his name / ‘Cause they’re waiting for you, like I waited for mine / nobody ever came… / I feel afraid and I call your name / I love your voice and your dance insane / I hear your words and I know your pain / With your head in your hands and her kiss on the lips of another / Your eyes to the ground and the world spinning round forever…”
Jeff Buckley is not my favorite singer-songwriter (that would be Elliott Smith), and Grace isn’t my personal favorite album either. But when people ask me to name my top five favorite albums (a very cinematic move, I know), I almost always leave out Grace, and I don’t do it on purpose. I overlook it, and that’s probably because there are five albums I like more than Grace just as there are many artists I like more than Jeff Buckley. The rest of Jeff Buckley’s releases are EP’s and live recordings. One release, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, is unfinished material he was working on when he passed away. It was released nearly a year to the day after he died. It isn’t bad, but not necessarily great—not like Grace.
What strikes me about that cold night in 2003 when I heard this the first time is how weird I felt. This strange man with the powerful voice was singing songs about me. I had a strange connection to every song he sang and I knew exactly what he was talking about. There’s something universal about Grace, and after a few listens, one realizes Jeff Buckley’s stories aren’t about him anymore, if they ever were; they are about you.