For many, Tim Buckley’s fame is having been the estranged father of the late Jeff Buckley, the singer songwriter musician who also managed to carve out an unconventional niche of his own. That the two shall remain forever entwined seems appropriate as it is tragic – one from a drug overdose, the other from an accidental drowning.
Tim’s 1967 album Goodbye and Hello had achieved critical acclaim for its versatile vocals and oblique meandering beauty. Issued over a year later, Happy Sad’s pensive meditations cast off conventional arrangements in favour of folk-jazz explorations. Despite their more experimental tendencies, each song has a soft and tangible glow to it, where it is clear that Buckley had discovered a new found freedom of expression.
By now Buckley had begun to increasingly integrate jazz structures into his music, allowing him to extend and vary his vocal range like never before. Much of the material ranges from intense reflection to improvised scatting, while backing him was Lee Underwood (lead guitar), Carter Collins (congas), John Miller (acoustic bass) and David Friedman (vibes), all of whom provide strong rhythmic support behind Buckley’s 12 string guitar.
We open with the soothing “Strange Feelin’”, where Buckley’s voice successfully lulls the listener into a pure state of calm and cerebral wandering. “Buzzin’ Fly” has Buckley in reflective mode, and includes some of his finest lyrics: “And tell me if you know/Just how the river flows/Down to the sea… A seabird knew your name/He knew your love was growin’/Lord I think it knows it’s flowin’/Through you and me”.
The wistful “Love from Room 109 at the Islander (On the Pacific Coast Highway)” is a gentle meditative ode to lost love, followed by “Dream Letter”, another number so tranquil that the listener might easily fall asleep and not even notice. Buckley ramps things up a bit on the extended tour de force of “Gypsy Woman”, pushing both his voice and band to the outer limits of their collective imaginations, like a more avant-garde Astral Weeks. Every now and then he unleashes his high falsetto, the only one of its kind, just to focus the listener’s attention while also giving unconscious clues as to his future direction.
The closing number, “Sing a Song for You”, is utterly breathtaking in its simplicity and plaintiveness. Buckley sings like a fallen angel who can no longer fly yet certainly knows how to soar, even without wings.
Happy Sad was the beginning of Buckley turning his back on commercial viability, preferring to remain true to his art than become a product of the record industry. Inspired by the likes of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, he sought to follow whichever direction his heart would take him. The next few years saw the singer release some of the most emotive and musically investigational albums of his career: Blue Afternoon, Lorca, before peaking with the majestically atmospheric Starsailor.
Buckley was to folk-rock what Miles was to Jazz – both cosmic explorers who extended any normal listeners understanding of what was possible, proving that sometimes an artist’s need for creativity can go beyond any preconceived notions of the human condition.