by Nicholas Otte (@ottenicholas)
Is it possible to hear Jeff Buckley’s powerful yet fragile voice, or the commanding delicacy of his guitar, without the shadow of his untimely death coloring the sounds a darker shade? His tragic story lingers at the edge of every chord, every hum, and has a way of taking what might have been simply a song and changing it to something else, something grandiose. It’s almost a shame, as nothing we hear from him since can be easily examined on its own merit or enjoyed without musings of what might have been.
In the years since Jeff Buckley’s infamous drowning at the age of 30, his unreleased and unfinished work has seen light through a handful of posthumous collections. The announcement of yet another, You and I, came as no great surprise, but left many wondering how much of the singer-songwriter there could possibly be left to share. As it turns out, You and I is one of the most compelling releases of Buckley’s material – not for its complete or realized nature, but because of its palpable intimacy.
The entirety of You and I is made up of solo, in studio performances, recorded in the winter of 1993 for reference following Buckley’s signing with Columbia. A representative from the label referred to these recordings as a “Table of Contents” for Buckley and the studio to work with as his career and catalogue blossomed. Despite these circumstances there is little sense of pressure or supervision in these recordings. Instead the picture that You and I paints is one of Jeff Buckley, alone with his guitar and a microphone with an engineer and the entire world separated from him by a pane of soundproof glass. It’s as if we’ve been allowed access to some private keepsake of Buckley’s – not a journal but a sketchbook.
The most compelling moments are when Buckley loses himself within a performance, which unfortunately does not happen all that often, but is understandable given the circumstances surrounding the recordings. There are tracks that act as intriguing glimpses into his process, though are not so impressive in their outcome. His now-apotheosized album, Grace, famously took long hours and many painstaking takes to achieve its soothingly wounded effect. A rendition of the title track from that album is present, but will make the listener grateful that this song and others, though too few, would go on to become fully realized. On “A Dream of You and I” Buckley plays a song and describes the origins of the rhythm: a dream he had. It’s best to listen to his description on the track, meandering and illogical though it may seem. Such is the nature of dreams. Some moments, like this one, find Buckley taking it easy instead of trying so damn hard to break our hearts with every high note and sultry snarl, which will be great for devotees but might fall flat for those unfamiliar with his work. He probably didn’t think anyone would listen to or scrutinize these recordings, and rightfully so, yet that shows repeatedly throughout the album on tracks that are more like a peek behind a door than a moving portrait of an artist.
That being said, it is charming to hear Jeff as he tries on some different hats. “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin” is and old timey tune by Joe Greene that, as Buckley’s own voice on the album attests, has been sung by Ray Charles and his ilk. It’s great to see Buckley drop his intensity and sing a song like this one, from a time and perspective so far removed from his own, and still inject it with some of his insidious personality. Similarly, “Poor Boy Long Way From Home” features Buckley doing his own version of a traditional blues, lowering his voice to match the persona of the narrator, moaning over the shame he’s brought his mother over the sound of a guitar so jangly and crooked it seems as though it might fall to pieces at any moment.
The inclusion of two songs by The Smiths will likely be a main selling point for many. It’s a natural fit given Buckley’s own adventurous yet subdued guitar work and penchant for hopeless romanticism. “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” is a fine moment on the record, but the well-placed closer of “I Know It’s Over” is this collection’s crown jewel. It would be easy to attribute this to a connection to Buckley himself – one performer whose artistic career was all but over before it could really begin – but those overtones are not what distinguish the track. This is one moment on the record where Buckley truly and wholly loses himself in the performance. He pours so much of himself into the song that all the tragedy of his loss melts away and we are left with an intimate look at a truly gifted artist, who is in that moment neither lost nor found.