Happy 25th Anniversary to Jeff Buckley’s debut studio album Grace, originally released August 23, 1994.
1994 was one of the most interesting years the music world has witnessed in quite some time. The music of all genres produced that year left an indelible mark on us that has lasted to this day. The Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die, Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York, Beastie Boys' Ill Communication, and Pearl Jam's Vitology are just some of the great titles that surfaced in 1994
The biggest surprise of that year was arguably Jeff Buckley's debut album Grace, though many of us did not failed to fully realize and appreciate it enough at the time. The majority of 1994's music was an outright rejection of the status quo and all the things that came before. It was loud, sometimes profane, and raw to the bone. In the midst of this sonic middle finger to the world stood Buckley's Grace, which delivered a beautiful, gentle rawness through his angelic voice. Buckley was coming from a completely different place than his counterparts.
When I first heard Grace, I was shopping at the now closed Sounds in the East Village on St. Mark's Place and by the time "Last Goodbye" was playing, I knew I was listening to something special. The range of Buckley's voice was a marvel to behold and it allowed him to expand the types of songs he sang. Eight of the album's ten songs are originals written by Buckley and a mix of co-writers, and the two remaining songs are covers of "Lilac Wine" and "Hallelujah.” The former was famously sung by Nina Simone and the latter was from Leonard Cohen's 1984 LP Various Positions.
"Hallelujah" took on a life of its own long after Buckley's tragic death. His interpretation of the song was inspired by the John Cale version instead of the Cohen version. There was a point in time where you could not escape the song. Even Cohen once said in a 2012 interview with The Guardian, "There's been a couple of times when other people have said can we have a moratorium please on ‘Hallelujah?’ Must we have it at the end of every single drama and every single Idol? And once or twice I've felt maybe I should lend my voice to silencing it, but on second thought no, I'm very happy that it's being sung." The posthumous success of the song is due to Buckley's incredible performance in which he makes the song completely his. A similar example is Aretha Franklin taking Otis Redding's "Respect" and making it one of the signature songs in her discography.
Buckley's songwriting tends to get overshadowed by his amazing voice, but he has a gift for telling a story with his songs. The album's title track is a song that was inspired by Buckley saying goodbye to his girlfriend at the airport. He once summed it up by saying, "It's about not feeling so bad about your own mortality when you have true love." Whereas the separation was temporary on "Grace,” "Last Goodbye" is a story of lovers parting ways permanently (“This is our last goodbye / I hate to feel the love between us die / But it's over / Just hear this and then I'll go / You gave me more to live for / More than you'll ever know”).
The one song that really caught my attention when I first heard Grace was the dark and haunting "So Real,” which was not originally slated to be on the album. The beauty of this song is how it builds from a gentle strum of the guitar to the full band leading us into the chorus and taking you into this wonderful dreamland. "So Real" shows off Buckley's entire vocal range as he hits high notes toward the end that leave you speechless. For me, it is the highlight of the album.
"Dream Brother" is another great example of Buckley's gift of telling a vivid story through strong songwriting. It's based on a true story about a friend of Buckley's who is contemplating walking out on his pregnant girlfriend and he (Buckley) is convincing him not to do it. Buckley warns him not to make the same mistake his father (singer Tim Buckley) made. He met his father only once when he was eight and had no relationship with him (“Don't be like the one who made me so old / Don't be like the one who left behind his name / Cause they're waiting for you like I waited for mine / And nobody ever came”).
"Dream Brother" is the most personal song on Grace and it closes out the album. On later anniversary releases, "Forget Her" was added to the end of the album. The Jeff Buckley Estate is making plans to release a 25th anniversary edition of Grace complete with four live shows from 1994 and 1995.
Grace is a lean collection of songs that just leaves you stunned, breathless and wanting more, except you know that isn't going to happen. Sadly, in May of 1997, Buckley drowned while taking an evening swim in the Mississippi River. Grace would be his one and only studio album, but it definitely cemented his place in music history, garnering praise from the likes of Robert Plant, David Bowie and Bob Dylan, who once called Buckley one of the greatest songwriters of the decade. Grace is still a great listen and when I play the album, I wonder what could have been. Jeff Buckley was an amazing talent that left us way too soon.