Dead Reckoning

The first time the savage morning jocks at Minnesota's modern-rock beacon 93.7 uttered the name Jeff Buckley was the day the Associated Press reported that his body had just been pulled from the bottom of the Mississippi. With their voices enhanced by ominous cave-echo studio FX, the DJs joked, "Now there's a loss. Who the hell was that?" Ben Folds, in town to play First Avenue, happened to catch this rich exchange, and stopped that night's show for a moment of silence, elegizing Buckley as the finest interpretive singer of his generation.

He was almost right. The 30-year-old Buckley had certainly been a contender. Those of us won over by his exuberant 1994 full-length debut Grace had been patiently awaiting his next effort, an album we faithful were convinced would definitively establish a new kind of post-grunge archetype: the classic-rock guitar hero as sequined balladeer. Though downright dangerous on the six-string, Buckley was blessed with an archangel's vox that seemed at times to startle even him as it reached Sufian heights. We predicted his follow-up would offer something equally divine, but we also feared it might suffer from our dear Icarus's overreach.

With Grace, Buckley's chanteusery and pixieish twist on alt-male posturing embraced both grunge's brutish and brooding tendencies. It juxtaposed Zep-style fervor with reverent hymns and a simmering Nina Simone ballad. But Grace had its problems, not the least of which was its inappropriate production. Blind Melon knob-twister Andy "Important Tasteful Rock" Wallace hid the songs behind stone-faced bodyguards and shoved them into gray limousines--Buckley's vocal bursts and quirks were mainstreamed by mixes that compressed his passion into dull modern-rock mixes. But despite its flaws, the music on Grace seemed to be sowing the seeds of a future yield.

In that sense, Buckley's death evoked for his fans a fatalism: If I die, who will cobble a legacy of this bedroomful of loose effects, rank laundry, and crumpled manifestos? Compare that to the treatment given to Buckley's alienated folk-icon father, Tim, who died of a drug overdose in 1975 at age 28. In the Rolling Stone Record Guide of 1979, Tim's Greetings from L.A. was described as "music by a beaten man still capable of desperate ecstasies." By the time he snuffed himself out, Tim Buckley had already released nine records.

Nearly two decades after that backhanded praise, 28 is hardly considered manhood. Without the threat of war or the promise of a better life than their parents' to spook draft-age boys into dreams of financial and social security, protracted "youth" has stormed the beaches of "adulthood" and set up camp. So, even if his audience craved something beyond the flash of potential from Jeff Buckley, we didn't yet expect manhood.

Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk is a slipshod assemblage of 13 studio cuts recorded with Television guitarist Tom Verlaine followed by seven 4-track demos. It's an intriguing batch for enthusiasts but, unfortunately, no reflection of greatness. Over 20 songs it becomes apparent that young Jeff's writing is overwrought and marked by vaguely maudlin lines such as "All is well between the breasts of passenger and slave."

Additionally, some of the tracks selected by Buckley's mom (who oversaw the compilation of her son's leftovers) succeed only as reminders that one should always--always--destroy disturbing polaroids, or, as is the case here, home recordings containing hissed phrases like "ass-slappin' pretty."

Buckley's voice does sound wonderful on tracks such as "Everybody Here Wants You," a Princely R&B ballad in which placeholder lyrics are thrust into permanence by the interpretive caress of his voice. By the same token, his axe-rock mojo punches up songs like the ominous "Nightmares by the Sea" and sexy T. Rexy "Yard of Blonde Girls."

Though often a cringe-inducing poet, Buckley had a certain knack for mantra. Grace's "(Oh, That Was) So Real," during which said phrase was falsettoed ad infinitum, finds an heir in the 4-tracked "I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby (If We Wanted to Be)," when Buckley intimates "Oh I love you/I'm not with you but of you" into gorgeous oblivion. Similarly, in "Witches Rave," a vaudevillian vamp on sensual obsession, Buckley's hokey verse is rescued by a puckish yet aching meditation on self-doubt: "I can't help from looking outside for a guarantee."

The best sketch, "Morning Theft," is a cross of Grace's radio cut "Last Goodbye" and Art Garfunkel's vocal on "For Emily (Wherever I May Find Her)." It's a wild lunge at lost intimacy that becomes increasingly particular as Buckley implores a lover taking her leave. His pleading climaxes in solitary regret. "The meaning fits/There's no relief in it/I miss my beautiful friend," he belts before resigning that "I had to send it away to bring it back again."

Jeff Buckley died treading water, crooning "Whole Lotta Love," fully clothed, boots sodden like ballast, his vision of the future as clear or blurred as we need it to be to suit the myths a recording like Sketches can only undo. "I hope I'll catch you in one last look at the wonder," sings Buckley toward the end of Sketches. And before we know him, he's gone.

 
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