“I’m not Grace. That album is like a brick onto itself. It’s like a coffin that I put certain feelings and observations in so that they can be capsulized forever.” — Jeff Buckley
25 years after the release of Grace it remains a modern masterpiece and, like its creator, refuses to go quietly into the night. Jeff Buckley was the son of late sixties troubadour Tim Buckley, inheriting more than just his father’s looks, he inherited the voice. A sublime voice, unforgettable from the first time you hear it. Jeff Buckley has entered a category beyond cult status, in some ways on the strength of that one release, in others due to his tragic passing. In the case of Jeff Buckley there was no implosion from excess like many others. Instead, he drowned tragically in the Mississippi river on May 29th, 1997.
Today marks 25 years since the release of Grace, on August 23rd, 1994. Sometimes, an album is elevated due to a lack of material released by the artist. However, the fact remains that Grace was a game-changing record irrespective of its creator’s life. One which the late David Bowie named as a personal “desert island disc” and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page cited as “the” album of the nineties. Indeed, like many other albums attaining extraordinary status, such as The Velvet Underground & Nico, Grace was a slow burner. It didn’t dominate the charts, but became influential over the years.
The nuts and bolts of Grace can appear bleak and, at times, are misunderstood as the depth of emotion overpowers song structures. On the title track, Buckley delves into love, death, and pain. He speaks of grace, and its importance to our existence. Elsewhere, opening track ‘Mojo Pin’ looks into the abyss of addiction — be it drugs, alcohol, or even a person. Key to the first two songs is Buckley’s musical foil, Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas. Lucas co-wrote both tracks, providing the perfect launchpad for release. Indeed, ‘Grace’ itself is based on an instrumental piece by Lucas, ‘Rise Up to Be’, which Buckley wrote lyrics for.
Two covers appear on Grace. The first is ‘Lilac Wine’, a James Shelton track from 1950. Buckley gives the song, which later appeared in 2006 French film Tell No One, a psychedelic makeover. The second is Buckley’s ubiquitous cover of the Leonard Cohen classic ‘Hallelujah’. Often cited as the ultimate version, it hit the top of the French charts in May 2008, and takes more inspiration from John Cale’s cover then Cohen’s original. Later on the record, Jeff gets personal with ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’. Here, Buckley takes lyrical inspiration from the implosion of his relationship with musician/actress Rebecca Moore.
Closing out the original album is the most gut-wrenching track of the lot — and a song of marked brilliance. ‘Dream Brother’ draws on Jeff’s non-existent relationship with his father Tim. He uses this experience to speak to his friend Chris Dowd of alternative act Fishbone. Buckley urges Dowd not to leave his pregnant girlfriend, to avoid a self-destructive path. This is clear in the poignant lines:
“Don’t be like the one who made me so old. Don’t be like the one who left behind his name”
To celebrate the anniversary, both the record label and Buckley’s estate have declined the opportunity for a cash-in box set. Instead, they plan to release staggering amounts of material through streaming services. The new material includes posthumous, incomplete records like Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, and four largely unreleased concert recordings.
However, there is one more notable aspect of the Grace legacy — an Irish connection. On the day it was released, Jeff Buckley and his band played a show at Whelan’s in Dublin. The significance of that moment may not have been fully appreciated at the time, but all in attendance witnessed a singer-songwriter on the cusp of greatness. A talent modest in the face of huge pressure and high expectations, stirring emotion with every syllable.