Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk, the posthumously released follow-up album to Jeff Buckley’s classic, Grace, is a surprisingly great recording. Unfinished (although you could’ve fooled me) because of Buckley’s perfectionist attitude, it may not be as great as he wanted to be, but it’s hard to imagine these tracks any differently, as they comprise one of the better alternative albums of the late nineties.
The opening track, “The Sky Is a Landfill,” is one of the more obviously unfinished songs, as the production isn’t as crisp as it could be. Nevertheless, it includes a solid riff and manages to rock pretty hard, even if Buckley’s vocals completely overpower the instrumentation. And one needn’t look further than the second track for proof of how diverse of a musician Buckley was. He somehow makes a natural transition from the dirty, rocking opener to the sexy, R&B-flavored “Everybody Here Wants You.” This song could melt glaciers, thanks to the multiple Buckley’s singing perfect falsettos in harmony with each other and the refreshingly positive lyrics. And then, just when you thought his music couldn’t get chiller, in steps “Opened Once.” Another highlight for sure, with lyrics full of beautiful imagery, this is the most gentle track on the record. It’s just Jeff’s voice, supported by some guitar, bass, and a little ambience to set the mood, no percussion. He keeps it brief for his standards, just three and a half minutes, but it’s a hard song to forget.
From here he gradually starts to turn up the volume again, first with “Nightmares by the Sea.” An appropriate title, as the song certainly does have a creepiness about it during the verses. It’s a noticeably faster song than the first three, with the drumming constantly keeping the pace; it’s not necessarily single material, but it is fairly accessible, which isn’t always true of Buckley’s music. It is followed by the grungy “Yard of Blonde Girls,” which is sort of the “Eternal Life” of Sketches. While it is very different from “Eternal Life,” being much slower and relying more on crunching guitar than a prominent bass line, it is the track that will appeal most to fans of hard rock music, and really to fans of mainstream music. “Yard” is followed by “Witches’ Rave,” a fun, upbeat, and less dense track than its predecessor. This is not a typical Buckley song, it has a distinctly indie sound, like something that might be recorded by The Shins, but it is still good, and the repeated last lines of “I can’t help from looking outside for a guarantee” are sure to get stuck in your head.
Things calm down temporarily at this point, with the unusual “New Year’s Prayer.” This song was originally just a poem by Buckley, and it is not hard to see this, as the lyrics are not in a typical structure of any way. Through repetition, Buckley manages to make a song out of it, and while it is far from the highlight of the album, it is a neat, strikingly different track. Another soft track, “Morning Theft,” is next. A similar song to “Opened Once,” it is more emotional and builds a little as it goes on, introducing drums and picking up the pace near the end. Although good, it can be easy to forget as it is followed up by two of the best on the album.
“Vancouver” is the last “fast” song on the record. It has a certain urgency and tension to it and it has a real affect on the listener, until the end, when he finally lets go and sings his heart out, and you’re left feeling almost out of breath. It is criminally short, at just over three minutes, but it is a great song, and a highlight in his catalogue. Then the album comes to a close with the brilliant “You & I.” If Buckley ever intended to include instruments on this song, it would have been a bad idea, because the track works perfectly as it is. The ambience and occasional sounds in the background create an eerie mood, and Buckley’s vocals match it flawlessly, as he occasionally transitions from a quiet murmur to a beautiful wail. It is a haunting song and an incredible outro that really leaves an impact on the listener as it fades out.
The second disc is not of the same quality of the first, and for the most part can only really be appreciated by Buckley fans. The first two tracks are alternative versions of “Nightmares by the Sea” and “New Years Prayer,” and the former’s changes are hardly noticeable. One of the highlight’s of the second disc is a live performance of the song “Haven’t You Heard,” which is one of the catchiest songs on either disc. Most of the songs on this disc were recorded by Buckley alone, the production is predictably poor, and they do not include any percussion, but it would have been interesting to hear these songs as finished projects, particularly his cover of Genesis’ “Back in N.Y.C.” which he turns into a loud, metallic rock song. This disc closes with “Satisfied Mind,” the song played at Buckley’s funeral, making it a fitting conclusion. It’s a peaceful blues song, and closes things out well; just like “You & I” did on the first disc.
Sketches is not quite the triumph that Grace was, but that should be expected. It’s a true shame that the world never got to hear this in its completion, because Buckley probably had great ideas for it, but at least we have this much, and this music never gets old.