Great Fucking Albums #21: Grace

On my recent trip to Death Valley, we had a sort of unspoken policy of letting albums cycle through about two-and-a-half to three times before we changed the disc. You do a lot of driving getting around a national park that size, and we were more diligent about our conversation (and which sites we were going to see next; my friend Marlayna has a passion for national parks and she attacks them with an almost ruthless efficiency. Whereas I would’ve wandered the park aimlessly, slack-jawed and mumbling about the “goddamn bigitude” of the place, Marlayna mapped out the best way for us to see the most interesting bits of the park in the two days we had) than we were in making sure each album only went round once. This policy worked out pretty well, though, because we got to spend some quality time with some great albums, not the least of which was Jeff Buckley’s 1994 debut/masterpiece/final album Grace.

I’ve mentioned at least once how I first encountered Jeff Buckley’s music – a great friend of mine put “Grace” and “Last Goodbye” on a mixtape (a real cassette mixtape) when I was in college. That mixtape led me to purchase Grace and both the mixtape (which also featured Radiohead’s “Thinking About You” and “Henry Lee” by PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, among many other gems) and Buckley’s album got me through some pretty lonely times. Sadly, I don’t have the cassette anymore, but I do still have my copy of Grace and its only gotten better with time.

Buckley’s voice, high and keening, was perfectly suited to these ten tracks, and he completely owned two well-known covers on Grace as well. The best-known is, of course, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Buckley actually based his arrangement of the song off of the one the Velvet Underground’s John Cale did for I’m Your Fan, a Leonard Cohen tribute album that also featured the Pixies, Nick Cave, and R.E.M.. Cale’s arrangement is lovely, but if you hear Buckley’s version and don’t think it’s the definitive one, you’ve probably got bubble gum stuck in your ears. The other famous cover on Grace is James Chilton’s “Lilac Wine”, which was made famous by Nina Simone. Here again, Buckley makes the song his in a way that should scare all sensible people away from attempting to cover it (if you don’t know better than to cover “Hallelujah” at this point, you probably also think it’s okay to cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and I don’t think I can help you).

Of the seven originals that grace…um… Grace (the other cover is “Corpus Christi Carol”, which is credited to Benjamin Britten in Grace‘s liner notes), it’s pretty awesome to think of these songs appearing in 1994. Nothing sounded like “Grace” back then. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell was kind of close, but he was more heavy metal when Buckley was more… what? Blues? Folk? Soul? These songs are essentially rock songs, but they have little in common with the better-known tunes of 1994 (fun fact: Tesla’s Bust a Nut was released the same day as Grace). This was the year of Stone Temple Pilots’ Purple, Green Day’s Dookie, Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral (oh, and Yanni’s Live at the Acropolis. Thank you, Wikipedia).  And then there was Grace, part soul, part rock, part blues, and all beautiful. It shouldn’t surprise you to you find that the album was met with early critical acclaim but little commercial success when it was released (the kids were too busy buying that Green Day record with all the turds on the cover). It takes time to recognize something as monumental as Grace and, maybe, just a little bit of tragedy too. People love to examine the record catalogues of the dead (I’ll admit that I didn’t find out about Chris Whitley until after he died in 2005) and Buckley’s drowning in the Wolf River in 1997 may have been an unfortunate catalyst to many people’s discovery of his music (best song written about Buckley’s death: “Grey Ghost” by Mike Doughty).

However you find Grace, you should fucking find it. It’s as cohesive and wonderful a set of ten songs as you are likely to find on record. If you listen to, say, Dookie now, it will sound unmistakably 90s, for better or worse (in that case, for worse). Grace, though, sounds fresh and unique in any decade. Buckley’s voice is matched by some extremely tight guitar playing, and his rhythm section (Mick Grondahl on bass and Matt Johnson on drums) is more than up to the challenge of playing behind such virtuosity. I can’t help but wonder if Robert Plant, upon hearing songs like “Last Goodbye” was forced to stop for a minute and realize, “That’s what I should’ve been going for all these years.” If he didn’t, he fucking well should have.

Thematically, Grace is almost eerily fitting for a dude who died young – on the title track, Buckley even sings, “And I feel them drown my name” and “Lilac Wine”, of course, is madness teetering on the edge of death. “Eternal Life” is a fiery rocker that scoffs a mighty scoff at the “twisted hell” of a “racist everyman.” The song, like all of Grace, is forceful, mournful, and hauntingly beautiful. Take note, however: this album was all that stuff before Buckley’s untimely death, so I’m not gonna sit here and speculate that the dude knew he was gonna die (well, okay, he knew he was gonna die eventually, obviously, but I’m not gonna project some kind of mystical bullshit on Grace because Buckley died three years after its release – the album and the man both deserve better).

There are plenty of albums I’ve owned in my life that have steered me through some dark times (Wilco’s Summerteeth, Bob Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks, and most of Tom Waits’s stuff) and the best of those have something to offer me during my happy times as well. Though I once found solace in the sweeping loneliness of Grace, I can go back to it now as a happily married, pretty well adjusted (I think) dude and appreciate the sheer beauty of the music. Jeff Buckley was a truly unique musical talent and while it’s a goddamn shame that Grace is the only complete album he ever released (Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk was released posthumously, containing demos for what would’ve been Buckley’s second album), I am personally extremely grateful to at least have this one. So pour yourself a glass of lilac wine (I guess you have to make it yourself – let me know how that goes, if you try it) and give Grace a listen. If you find, afterwards, that you prefer Green Day’s Dookie to Jeff Buckley’s masterpiece, do us all a favor: stick your head in the toilet and flush.

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One thought on “Great Fucking Albums #21: Grace

  1. Wow, this is really gorgeous music. And you’re right, it doesn’t at all sound like other 90s music that I know.

    Continue having great taste in music, please 🙂

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