Review Summary: Everything makes sense...
The genesis of things arrives in sudden punctures that reverberate for all eternity. It is Ziggy Stardust and Music for Airports, it is White Light and Blue Train. To put it more simply, once everything comes to make sense, it stays with you forever.
By 1969, Buckley seemed bored of folk’s traditionalist predilections, and his compositions started growing more complex, compounding time signatures and letting the songs breathe and drift on composite tangents. They grew lengthier and more patient, coming apart and folding in on themselves, with Buckley’s four-octave voice tethering it all down for fear of the whole thing soaring into orbit.
The end of 1970 would see these pilot experiments reach their apogee in “Starsailor,” a work of sheer splendor. Everything on that album would fall into place. The songs were trimmed in length and given unified focus without dulling the music’s now-remarkable range, offering compressed bursts of inordinate beauty.
It all started here however, on this record, and no other singular song captures Buckley’s transition from a mere golden lung into an artist with a vision than “Love From Room 109 At The Islander [On Pacific Coast Highway].” The eleven-minute number opens with an atonal drone that slowly gives way to a restless double-bass and coruscated keys. Buckley throws everything he’s got into “Room 109,” and it all clicks perfectly, jazz guitar slinking around his plaintive vocal. The song shift meters and tones at the 6-minute mark, with harsh strings turning a somber mood, and the pace coming to an exquisite crawl, and Buckley chanting “I feel what you feel,” until it all dissolves into electric crackle. “Room 109,” perhaps better than any other composition of his, displays what it’s like to be entirely submerged in a song, to listen to something that leaves you feeling hollowed and stranded, to be drunk on sound.
Buckley’s early dabbles in proto-ambience (Strange Feelin’) and gauzy funk (Gypsy Woman) at Elektra Studios in LA, ran parallel with the avant-garde pursuits at which Miles Davis was trying his hand at the same time, across the country in New York. “In a Silent Way” in particular plays incredibly well as “Happy Sad’s” comrade-in-arms. It’s strange to think of insurrection as being so delicate and gracefully subdued, but the merit of what these two albums did, turning music onto its head, cutting raw beauty out of rumination, was and is immeasurable.
What Davis had over Buckley was the established reputation of a temperamental genius to carry him through that experimentation without losing touch with his audience or the record companies. As Buckley’s music became more oblique, it lost commercial appeal, causing him to loose footing with those signing his checks, and the people coming to hear that indelible croon. It all came to a head on the now-immortal recording of his performance at The Troubadour in West Hollywood, with Buckley prostrating his voice to incredible highs, the instruments improvising endlessly, and the songs running past the twenty-minute mark. Today, that performance stands as a spearhead of how daring music can become in the right hands. But at the time, its lukewarm reception corroded Buckley’s relationship with Elektra, causing him to switch record companies and briefly subsist less on singing, and more on odd jobs and acting. The last records Buckley would cut before his untimely death would edge closer to candid blue-eyed soul, albums that while no-less affecting, walked a distinctly straighter path.
“Happy Sad” occupies an unequalled space in Tim Buckley’s catalogue. It isn’t his best album, isn’t the most successful or even the most intrepid. It is Sui Generis, the starting point of an artist coming into his own, the ineradicable moment when creation succumbs to evolution, when something becomes everything. It makes sense that it was a member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention who discovered Buckley and first saw him for all he would become. Genius recognizes its tribe.