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Second Chance:

Jeff Buckley

Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk

1998

Bands are inevitably judged by the debut album- it’s a mission statement, breakthrough and labor of love all in one. But what of the sophomore album? Often dismissed as filler albums, does the second release really deserve that? Our ongoing series takes another look at albums that may or may not deserve a second chance.

After recently watching the compilation of Jeff Buckley live performances Grace Around The World and its accompanying documentary film, I was struck by how little I had listened to the singer since college. I don’t mean that in the sense that I somehow outgrew Buckley’s peculiar blend of Zeppelin and Piaf; more, it feels like the kind of emotions that each of his songs purveyed are more suited to the histrionic emotions first reached at the cusp of adolescence. With that in mind, I decided to take a look at an album that never quite grabbed me as Grace or as the live Mystery White Boy, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk.

But first of all, is it really an album at all? Buckley’s famed early demise left two sets of recording sessions in limbo, the first produced by Television’s Tom Verlaine and the second primarily of homemade tracks and alternate mixes. If that doesn’t throw the singer’s unique dichotomy in your face, I don’t know what would. But after his drowning, Buckley’s estate (and presumably record label, Columbia) had to decide what, if anything to do with the scattered remnants of sessions that by all reports, were mixed at best. The answer came in a double-disc collection of the cream of the tentative sophomore record session and ultimately, even more questions. Would Buckley have kept with his ethereal blend of hard rock, or would he move in the metal direction he seemed to have kept a juvenile fondness for? The Eastern influences that he wore on his sleeve, citing Ali Akbar Khan as his Elvis? What ’60s song would he next cover in delicate vibrato slickness?

Listening to Sweetheart, I honestly believe that he himself didn’t have a fucking clue. The material on both discs is uniformly strong, if not always up to the critical bar that Grace set, but also, so inextricably confused in tone and style that it’s not difficult to see why his sophomore effort was giving him such a hard time. This isn’t a slight against Buckley- after all, he was a relatively young man trying to ride a wave of critical adulation against the breakers of popular indifference in America. It’s not surprising that there should be such incoherence present in the work, although the second disc comes off as somewhat rawer and disjointed than Verlaine’s tracks. It is fascinating to hear the different songs and moods play off each other with the distance of time muting tragedy and the ever present “What might have been.”

The opening track, “The Sky Is a Landfill,” is actually one of the weakest and most indulgent songs on Sweetheart, although the slickness of the production makes me wonder if it had been earmarked for single release. If so, it would have showcased some of his thinnest lyrics, including “With your steroids and your feedbag/ and your stable and your trainer/ I got a mail bomb for you, Mr. Strong Arm.” Buckley never shied away from drama in his music, but at least he kept it the melodramatic from the overblown most of the time. Fortunately, the rest of disc one makes up for one of the lesser tracks of his entire brief oeuvre. The Prince-influenced love song (to girlfriend Joan Wasser), “Everybody Here Wants You,” rides a slinky guitar and a minimal bassline to a place somewhere between lust and affection, while “Opened Once” showcases his never less-than-astounding falsetto beautifully. Importantly, it never takes his impressive vocal range to the almost ridiculous trills that his live shows could; restraint is as impressive as talent in the young. A cover of Pendulum Floors’ “Yard of Blonde Girls” actually treats the unfortunate ’90s guitar crunch as kindly as it can, while the nearly ambient “You & I” makes a distant hum and Buckley’s voice into an incredibly emotional run through a broken relationship.

The second disc is even more scattered, if possible. While the smoothness of Verlaine’s production at least kept a unified sound, if uneven tone, the second collection of songs is rough and unfinished sounding, the guitars alternately heavy with reverb or distortion. If anything, the songs themselves are actually stronger- the alternate takes of “Nightmares By The Sea” and “New Year’s Prayer” are more stripped down and otherwise indifferent, but the echoing “I Know We Could Be So Happy (If We Wanted To Be)” is one of the finest ballads that Buckley ever recorded. Over an electric guitar arpeggio, the singer states he is “the ghost who comes and goes/ And I hope I’ll catch you in the throws/ Of one last look at the wonder” while displaying the kind of naked emotion that seemed so natural to him. The curiously titled “Murder Suicide Meteor Slave” is more remarkable for its cringing paranoia, rather unique in his recorded output, as is the yowling cover of Genesis’s “Back In N.Y.C.”, but both are nicely offset by “Your Flesh Is So Nice.” Before, Buckley had always sounded tender in his sexuality- for the first time, “Oh, I take off my belt/ Oh, I whip the staircase” showed a bit of edge. If the Donovan-like “Jewel Box” had not been followed up by an almost unbearably sad take on the country standard “Satisfied Mind,” it would have been a crown to the collection. As it is, it’s a suitable closing place to his work as a songwriter.

Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk is just what it says it is- sketches, a diagram of something unfinished. By this point, there’s been enough mythology to cover the sadness of loss, but a collection of songs like this makes me more regretful than ever. It shows Jeff Buckley as he probably was- confused and unsure of where to go, not eternally emotive and stage-bound. Its incoherence makes him far more human than his legend ever could.

by Nathan Kamal

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