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The Boston Phoenix Fetching Sketches

Jeff Buckley's heartbreaking swan song.

By Stephanie Zacharek

MAY 18, 1998:  For an artist with Jeff Buckley's perceptiveness, sense of subtlety and craftsmanship, and off-the-planet vocal prowess, the two-CD Sketches (for my sweetheart, the drunk), due from Columbia on May 26, isn't the album it should be. But for Sketches to be that album -- for it to be more than just "sketches" for the LP Buckley, the son of '70s folk-rocker Tim Buckley, was in the process of making when he drowned accidentally in the Mississippi River last May 29 -- he would still have to be alive.

As it is, for those of us who knew and loved Buckley's work -- and especially for those of us who'd seen how transcendent his live performances could be -- there's no way to look at Sketches with any sort of critical acuity. I could tell you which songs I think sound forced and overprocessed, and which shimmer with spontaneity and brilliance. But in the end I'd find myself slipping into the old cafeteria-style approach critics fall back on when they really don't know what to say: pick two mediocre songs from Column A and balance them against two remarkable ones from Column B. Wind it all up with a dutiful summary about how longtime fans will like this CD but novices would do best to start elsewhere.

Sketches is one of those rare albums that renders judgments about quality beside the point. It's not that it's churlish to find fault with a dead man's work: at this point, Buckley doesn't need anybody's charity. It's just that Sketches -- with its "bad" tracks and its good ones -- ultimately isn't about the content of the songs, the arrangements, or even the naked beauty of Buckley's singing at its best. It's about the process of invention, about the life that a work of art has even before it's been poked and prodded and pruned into a form the artist deems acceptable for public consumption. Sketches is a truly organic album, and not merely because most of the songs on the second disc are works in progress, some of which Buckley recorded on a home four-track. You can hear him playing around with sound, still being surprised by the muscle of his own voice, and that makes Sketches seem so alive that it changes shape every time you listen. Tracks I could take or leave on the first go-round (the ominous and gorgeous "Vancouver"; two different versions of the moody-yet-glam "Nightmares by the Sea") became tracks I felt compelled to return to again and again. The art-rocky sing-song burlesque of "Haven't You Heard?" and the shapeless, metallic spacesuit guitar of "Murder Suicide Meteor Slave" are things I could do without today -- but I have no idea how I'll feel about them next week.

Maybe for that reason -- that Sketches is such a transmutable, idiosyncratic, troubling little work -- it's worth noting that anybody unfamiliar with Jeff Buckley probably should start with Live at Sin-é (Columbia), the 1993 EP that, even though it comprises just four songs recorded in a tiny New York City coffeehouse, stands as Buckley's masterwork. Austere, spontaneous, and mind-bendingly inventive, Live at Sin-é captures the magnetic intensity he could achieve in live performance.

Perhaps (and he died too young for us ever to know the answer) Buckley was one of those performers who was at his best when he could feed off the energy of a live audience. His 1994 studio LP, Grace, is a gorgeously crafted work that displays his talents like an emperor's robe, resplendent and awe-inspiring. And yet it somehow keeps us at arm's length, whereas he could draw a live audience into an almost eerie kind of intimacy that I don't think I've seen with any other performer. He always wore his influences -- Edith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Cohen, Prince and/or Smokey Robinson, to name only a small fraction -- like stars in a crown, often paying tribute to them openly by performing their songs. His covers of Big Star's "Kangaroo" and Cohen's "Hallelujah" (the latter appears, in a relatively lackluster version, on Grace) stopped me cold when I heard them live here in Boston in 1994. Buckley, for all his youth -- he was only 30 when he died -- tapped the very depths of those songs, and he also made them new, finding new contours that even those of us who'd heard the originals dozens of times didn't know they had.

All of that openness, that willingness to burrow into a song, is there on Sketches. Many of these tracks are clearly in a raw state: Buckley and his band (including Nick Grondahl on bass, Michael Tighe on guitar, and Parker Kindred and Eric Eidel on drums) had been working on some of them with producer Tom Verlaine in late 1996 and early 1997, in both New York and Memphis. Reported to be unhappy with the sessions, Buckley had sent his band back to New York from Memphis in February of 1997; he remained behind to rework some of the songs recorded with Verlaine and to record some new ones on a four-track. When he died, he was about to begin three weeks of rehearsals with his band before recording the planned album, my sweetheart, the drunk, with producer Andy Wallace in Memphis in late June. The tracks that ultimately appeared on Sketches were assembled posthumously by Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert, and several of his friends and colleagues.

It would be useless, and frustrating, to approach the tracks on Sketches wondering what Buckley would have done with them. They really are just sketches, often partly formed, scantily clad, ghostly shapes, only half into the real world, venturing out into daylight blinking and confused. The only way to approach them with any sense of peace is to come at them as they are, boldly, and try to talk yourself out of the notion that you're clutching desperately at something that's gone.

In some ways, Buckley has made that task easy for us. Sketches may be a confoundingly uneven collection, but because his vocals are so passionate and visceral, it isn't a morbid one. Buckley has always sounded wraithlike -- his voice conjures visions of Spanish moss hanging in the misty night, or of illicit moonlight trysts under bowers of lilac. Yet for all its delicacy, his brand of romanticism also has muscle. He wasn't an elfin manchild performer afraid of overt sexuality. Even when he sang falsetto with the purity of a castrato, he was anything but sexless, and many of the songs on Sketches crackle with his supercharged eroticism. On "Morning Theft" he explores the futility, and the necessity, of trying to connect with a lover, giving even conventional symbols for sexuality a new kind of meaning: "You're a window, I'm a knife/We come together making chance in the starlight/Meet me tomorrow night, or any day you want." The spacy, trancelike "New Year's Prayer" dissolves into a chant -- "Fall in love, fall in love, fall in love" -- marked out by percussion that sounds like the rapping of dried bones, primal and elegant.

The most stunning of all may be "I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby (If We Wanted To Be)," one of the home four-track recordings. Its backbone is a slow, chugging, rubbery rhythm, like the sound of a heartbeat magnified through a pillow. Buckley surveys the mangled train wreck of a relationship gone wrong and salvages, with plenty of sorrow but no bitterness, the things of lasting beauty and value. "Not with you but of you," he says of himself. It's a nascent, miniature curlicue of a thought that turns desperation into a fact of the everyday, the kind of thing that could creep up on a man as he surveys himself in the bathroom mirror during his morning shave.

Buckley's romantic intensity, and the occasionally almost impossible purity of his voice (I used to be very aware that he was the son of '70s folk singer Tim Buckley; throughout Sketches I hardly thought of it at all), took their toll on me by the end of Sketches. I'm grateful the CD ends -- apparently, at his mother's request -- with a solo radio recording of Porter Wagoner's hit "Satisfied Mind" that cools like a salve. Buckley plays the notes wrecked and bent and bluesy; he clears his throat before he sings. When he gets to the words "One thing's for certain/When it comes my time/I'll leave this old world with a satisfied mind," it's like a benediction not for him but for us. And by the time the song ends (with a last, lonely guitar plink -- a stray, like a feather), I've gotten over my disappointment that he died before he got to make the great album he could have. I think I actually feel relieved I don't love Sketches more than I do. He's already broken my heart as it is.

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