Befitting epitaph for the fallen troubadour
Jeff Buckley’s first and only official studio album Grace was a long time coming. Even during recording sessions, Buckley was still playing catch up, writing new material as he went with his fellow band mates. Only three of its ten tracks were written solely by Jeff himself, with the others either covers or co-writes (ex Zappa guitarist Gary Lucas shares writing songwriting credits on “Mojo Pin” and “Grace”). Buckley once remarked that he wasn’t exactly the most prolific of writers, which perhaps explains why there was such a lengthy delay between his debut and any potential follow-up.
But as we all know, that follow-up never came. However he did manage to record at least an album’s worth (probably more) of new songs, some of which would have undoubtedly been earmarked for his next LP. The only problem was, Jeff wasn’t entirely happy with the results, and intended to go back into the studio to begin sessions proper. Sadly though, on the very night these sessions were due to start, Buckley went for a swim in the Mississippi river, where he drowned, robbing the world of one of its brightest musical talents.
Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk was released in May 1998, one year after the singer’s death, and was largely supervised by Mary Guibert, Jeff’s mother, who wanted to ensure that her son’s legacy would be treated with respect, and not open to exploitation. The album is divided into two parts, the first CD covers the studio cuts, while the second consists of predominately home-made demos, and are therefore far more personal in nature.
Produced by Television guitarist Tom Verlaine, the first CD opens with the post-grunge political rocker “The Sky Is A Landfill,” the heaviest track here, followed by the exquisite ballad “Everybody Here Wants You,” which was, unsurprisingly issued as a single. Both numbers are a clear departure from Grace, if not musically then certainly lyrically, where Buckley appears to have adopted a far more world weary posture.
Though as polished as these recordings are, they still have a certain ‘unfinished’ quality to them. “Nightmares By The Sea,” “Yard Of Blonde Girls,” and “Witches’ Rave” are each oozing with potential, but no doubt required just a little more tinkering. The Eastern drone of “New Year’s Prayer,” with Buckley’s multi-dubbed vocals, is utterly mesmerising, while “Opened Once” and “Morning Theft” are tender, glorious reminders of Jeff’s transcendent side.
Of all these tracks, “You & I” is the most experimental, and probably the one Buckley may have seen as fit for release. The listener may also feel a shiver when Buckley sings “Ah, the calm below that poisoned river wild.”
CD two is less interesting, but just as important, as it contains several songs Buckley had begun to put in the cue in the Spring of 1997. Apart from different mixes of “Nightmares By The Sea” and “New Year’s Prayer,” the only other studio track is “Haven’t You Heard,” a song that fails to truly gel, despite the level of enthusiasm Jeff and the band put into it.
The next several songs stem from 4-track solo recordings he made in Memphis shortly before his death. Of these, “I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby (If We Wanted To Be),” “Murder Meteor Suicide Slave,” “Demon John” are the most intriguing, so much so that one wonders how Buckley might have adapted them to the more formal environment of the studio. He pays homage to Genesis with a spirited “Back In N.Y.C.,” goes into cock-rock mode on “Your Flesh Is So Nice,” before rewarding the listener with one of his finest, most endearing rock-ballads, the absolutely stunning “Jewel Box,” a tune which, even in demo form, had ‘hit’ written all over it.
The album ends rather strangely with a cover of country singer Porter Wagoner’s 1955 “Satisfied Mind,” recorded in 1992 for WFMU Radio. Although chronologically out of place, Buckley’s performance is staggering in its beauty, and further reinforces the man’s ability to achieve the sublime through his voice.
Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk is a near flawless exposition of an artist whose dedication to his craft was as steadfast as it was often uplifting.