The 10 best Jeff Buckley songs
Jeff Buckley was a man out of his own time. Grace was released at the height of ’90s alternative rock, but it had little to do with grunge. Instead, Buckley combined rock, folk, jazz, blues, chanteuse and qawwali influences so fluidly that it’s easy to overlook just how weird he was. These days, we have plenty of great songwriters, and compelling vocalists – Adele certainly owes a lot to Jeff Buckley. But no one artist captures everything he did.
Ultimately, that’s why we’re still talking about him – not because he died young, and not for what might have been. It’s because he fulfilled so much of his potential on that one album alone.
‘I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain’
Jeff Buckley barely knew his father, the cult ’60s folk singer Tim Buckley. So when he performed at Greetings from Tim Buckley, the 1991 concert that marked his debut on the NYC music scene, he wasn’t simply paying homage. As sung by Tim Buckley, ‘I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain’ is a gorgeous, poetic, yet uncomfortably self-justifying song about leaving his wife and child to be a wandering musician. But when Jeff performed it some 24 years later, it became something else altogether; as his biographer David Browne calls it, “a tribute, retort, and catharsis all in one”.
‘Be Your Husband’
Rock musicians used to do great things with the blues, but nowadays, it’s far too often white dudes trading guitar solos over the same old 12-bar chords. On ‘Be Your Husband’, the first song on the Live at Sin-é reissue, Jeff Buckley doesn’t even need a guitar. He embodies the blues with stomps, handclaps, and his voice alone. He doesn’t just imitate Nina Simone, he reinterprets her, turning the protagonist wife of her song into a submissive husband.
Grace‘s opening track suggests that something isn’t quite right. Written about a dream, Buckley’s lyrics slip in and out of consciousness, from desire into nonsensical images – “Precious silver and gold / And pearls in oyster’s flesh”. The drums and guitars build into a frenzy, then just as suddenly they stop, unresolved. It opens Grace with a question mark.
‘Grace’ is Jeff Buckley at his most melodramatic, his voice swooping from major to minor-key, intimate to operatic. And yet, you never get the sense that he’s overdoing it, or showing off. Like everything else on Grace, it’s completely emotionally authentic.
‘Grace’ has some of Jeff’s most striking guitar playing, too, but he only wrote the song’s vocal line, over his former guitarist Gary Lucas’s existing instrumental. But compare the primitive 1991 demo to the newly released version from You and I, recorded just two years later, and you’ll hear all the subtle ways Jeff made the song his own.
‘Last Goodbye’ might seem like Jeff’s most straightforward song, but it’s no typical breakup ballad. “Kiss me, please kiss me / But kiss me out of desire, babe / And not consolation” is a lyric for the ages, a gesture so articulate it belongs in a Shakespearean sonnet – but it’s still too little, too late. It was beautiful, but it’s over. ‘Last Goodbye’ made a generation of women fall in love with him, and inspired a generation of sensitive acoustic singer-songwriters to imitate him, mostly in vain.