graceIn the summer of 1994, Forrest Gump, Speed and the Lion King were topping the box office. OJ Simpson was arrested for suspicion of murder. Nelson Mandela went from being a prisoner to president, marking the end of apartheid. Green Day sparked a so-called “punk rock” revolution, which paved the way for pop-punk success years later. And the second Woodstock featured a MTV-televised, mud-soaked performance from Nine Inch Nails.

This is the completely wrong context for Jeff Buckley’s Grace, released a week after that Woodstock weekend. Grace is one of the sadder, more inspiring albums out there and it had nothing to do with any of the events of its time. Instead, it is simply an island of intimacy about the emotional turmoil of ill-equipped youth and its intersection with love, a dangerous game.

Much like those hit shows that you find out about on Netflix, after they’ve already been canceled (I’m looking at you Firefly), Grace was a slow burn as far as record sales are concerned. While over a dozen magazines rate the album as one of the best of all time, it never sold enough at once to top #149 on the Billboard charts in the US. Yet, it eventually went on to sell over two million copies globally, mostly in Australia and Europe.

“Mojo Pin” sets the stage and the mood for the album. It starts off quiet and sweet, with crooning vocals that slowly build with complex guitar arpeggios. Eventually, the rest of the band joins in, with plenty of breathing, breaks and jazz-flavored drums. By the middle of the song, they work themselves into an outright lather: crashing, distorted guitars, sped up drumming, cymbals aplenty and belted out, screamed vocals finish the song out strongly. This is the template for the album as a whole—it builds from a quiet, peaceful beginning, breathes in the middle and concludes with some of the rock-inspired pieces. Meanwhile, “Grace” glides underneath melancholy lyrics about leaving a lover, a common theme in the album. Jangly guitars are overlaid on top of inspired chords from a variety of subdued, twinkling keyboards and string samples. The song builds and exposes Buckley’s ability to deftly wail into multiple octaves.

Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has impressed many over these last 20 years. While Rolling Stone puts it at #259 on their 500 Best Songs of All Time, Australia’s Triple J placed it #3 on their listing of 100 best in 2009. Beginning first with a heavy sigh and moving into a lamenting, plodding, slow guitar part, Buckley makes you yearn for the first verse before he delivers it. His crooning voice and varied movements clearly paint a scene of lament that Cohen’s version lacks. While Cohen employs a chorus and band, the starkness of Buckley’s guitar/vocal-only rendition has more impact. Every twinkle in the guitar, every breath, every sigh hits harder without all the distractions of a band or backup singers. It still hurts to listen to this song.

“Last Goodbye” is a crooned, sad but up-tempo song about saying goodbye to a lover. To this day, I still hone in on the textures of the acoustic guitar strumming underneath the song. Like with much of these songs about parting, there is a vulnerable admittance to not having all the capacities to heal wounds. But also, this is where it starts to sound a bit like a broken record in the sense that all the songs are about lost love.

In that vein, “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” is an audio version of a Renoir painting, cloaking the listener in cold, wet longing: “Looking out the door I see the rain fall upon the funeral mourners/ Parading in a wake of sad relations as their shoes fill up with water/ And maybe I’m too young to keep good love from going wrong/ But tonight you’re on my mind so you never know.” “Lover” is the powerhouse of the album: every heartfelt word, every guitar lick, every accordion note adds a stroke and texture to this poor bastard wondering what could have been. I’ve cried more than once to this song.

The album ends with strong, rock sensibilities, but also two songs that haven’t aged extremely well. “Eternal Life” could have been on any other ‘90s album, save for the violin in the background and the ever-present dynamics Buckley and company are constantly mindful of. Buckley’s ability to emote even when things are turned up to 10 is impeccable. “Dream Brother” showcases drummer Matt Johnson’s capabilities. Much of the song is practically a drum solo underneath a mournful song about the excesses of life, one that recalls the temporal spirals that we inevitably fall into.

This is Buckley’s only studio album, because, like his father, Buckley died at a young age.
Tim Buckley, a singer-songwriter/folk musician from the ‘60s, died when he was 28 of a heroin overdose (cliché alert!); Jeff Buckley drowned in the Mississippi River in 1997 at the age of 30. While Jeff’s death was accidental, the final lyrics in “Dream Brother” ring too loudly given Jeff’s end: “Your eyes to the ground and the world spinning round forever/ Asleep in the sand with the ocean washing over.”

After 20 years, every time I listen to this album, it has more power and more gravity than it did when I was first convinced to give it a spin. Its poetry, lyricism and musicianship stand the test of time and never bowed to musical trends. Grace was not a product of the 1990s, it was a product of Buckley’s soul.

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