Review Summary: One of the greatest triumphs of rock music.
I'll always consider time to be one of the most important factors in music; no matter how high an album's quality may seem in the present, you never know whether it'll continue to hold up years later or suffer from the law of diminishing returns. That's why it's so much harder to judge modern music against the old time-tested classics and most likely why critics eventually put a lot of older music they initially greeted harshly in their "all time best" lists (along with appeasing certain audiences). Of course, this leads to a lot of pressure and arguments from various fans and commentators, who discuss which of an artist's albums aged the most gracefully and remain(s) the real timeless gem(s). The reason I bring this up is because it's absolutely astounding how much American alternative rock artist Jeff Buckley got right on his one and only album Grace and how, almost twenty years later, the record sounds like it could have been recorded just yesterday. Time was extremely kind to Grace, and that's certainly not the only great thing to say about it.
Being the son of another acclaimed musician named Tim Buckley, who combined folk with a wide variety of other genres such as jazz and soul, Jeff had some serious shoes to fill before he even made an album. Moving back and forth between California and New York, Buckley eventually settled in the latter where many of his musical influences came into play. Starting to perform covers from bands such as Elton John, Led Zeppelin, and Leonard Cohen, he decided to take things to the next level and signed with Columbia Records after garnering a larger amount of attention in the venues he'd perform at. Thus, Grace was recorded and released, intended to be the first of three albums. Sadly the two following albums would never see the light of day because of Buckley's tragic death in 1997 (save for a compilation of unfinished studio work, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk), but let's look at Grace as it is.
Displaying a blend of warm folky ballads, alternative rockers, and even gospel touches here and there, Grace's music is pretty diverse and serves as a great backdrop for Buckley's vocals which, let's face it, are still the main focus here. Among the most impressive things the record manages to accomplish is establishing a powerful chemistry between Jeff's singing and the instrumentation, which intertwine in a variety of interesting ways. The way the singer's vocal work and guitar playing combine in a song like the warm chord-centric Leonard Cohen cover "Hallelujah" creates an intimate atmosphere that makes for an extremely passionate performance. You'll be able to hear a pin drop during that stunning instrumental break in the middle as the guitar work quietly modulates through multiple keys with some absolutely gorgeous finger-picking. "Lilac Wine" follows a similar path, albeit in a more melancholic fashion, before transforming into a soulful ballad that, despite repeating its main motif quite a bit, never seems to grow old. There are, however, many times in which Buckley completely overpowers the instrumentation 100%, such as in the title track's stunning climax near its conclusion. Jeff holds a note with his head-voice that lasts for over ten seconds, along with actually going up a few notes in the process; it is at this point that you realize that he is in full control of this entire record. While "Mojo Pin" serves as a nice somber opener, the title track raises the stakes and displays just how large Jeff's vocal range is and the plethora of techniques he knows. Between his falsettos, high head-voice notes, quiet and intimate near-whispers, etc., he reveals his proverbial "hand" quite early on and yet continues to impress anyway.
One of the most important facts considering this record's acclaim is how it's not at all a product of the times (1994 in this case), and that is what makes it so great. In fact, songs like "Hallelujah," "Lover, You Should've Come Over," and bittersweet closer "Dream Brother" sound like they'd be special and out of place (in a good way) in any time period because of how genuinely timeless they sound. The same could be said of most of the record, although some songs such as "Last Goodbye" and loud rocker "Eternal Life" are a bit more on the conventional side; in that case, Buckley's vocals and little compositional subtleties elevate them beyond being generic or unmemorable. Also, perhaps one of Grace's biggest strengths is how many of its songs create crystal-clear mental images; musical environments, if you will. The intro to "Lover, You Should've Come Over" is one such song, using the harmonium (aka pump organ) to create an airy and melancholic landscape that somehow seems hopeful because of the use of some beautiful major chords in the mix. "Mojo Pin" uses extensive note-bending on the guitar, creating what sounds like a new age-inspired vibe even as the louder moments take hold of the overall song. Perhaps the most sadly fitting is "Dream Brother," which conveys a brooding, somber sound that seems almost desolate and empty, the album's dark conclusion almost seeming like a foreshadowing of Buckley's own demise.
In the end, Jeff Buckley could be considered the 90s version of 60/70s folk legend Nick Drake, releasing a small amount of material before dying way too early. But luckily, he also shared the distinction of having his work being some of the most acclaimed music of his generation, and it garnered him a posthumous fanbase beyond what anybody would've expected. Grace is one of the most essential records of rock music, not just of the 90s but all rock (and folk, for that matter) in general; it wasn't just a promising debut, but a miracle of a record in its own right.
Lover, You Should've Come Over