More 90s nostalgia today as David Nilsen and I discuss Grace by Jefd Buckley, which is quite clearly not the 304th best album of all time.
Katy Goodwin-Bates: Should we just start by saying that Grace is possibly the most beautiful album of ever and then spend the rest of the chat riffing about scones or something? I listened to the whole thing from start to finish last night and was in an ecstatic stupor by Forget Her. I just read that Rolling Stone named Grace the 304th best album of all time. 304! As if there are 303 albums that are even comparable, never mind better!
David Nilsen: I like when we start with rants and then go from there.
Also, any conversation about scones between us would probably devolve into a semantic debate about what, in fact, a scone is.
Katy: Not that again. International relations are bad enough.
David: Right? So. Grace.
Katy: Definitely one of my top 5 albums ever.
David: It’s in my top 20, probably. It’s beautiful. Truly remarkable.
Also, while the music doesn’t feel dated to the 90s in the way some of the other albums we’ve discussed have, this still feels like an album that couldn’t happen today. Feels uniquely of its era, though I struggle to explain why.
Katy: I thought the same thing. Part of it, I think, is his voice, which I can’t imagine hearing as a new sound today; it’s got a weird timeless quality that actually makes if feel like it doesn’t belong in any era. If you compare to him the male singer-songwriters of 2017, he sounds totally different; I thing the same applies to your much-loved Elliott Smith, actually. Both achieve a level of emotion which I think the Sheerans and Jonases of this world could only dream of.
David: Maybe it’s a type of earnest emotional sincerity that feels like it broke out just before irony became king?
Katy: Absolutely. You’ve just phrased my own thought far more eloquently than I did.
David: I think Elliott could still happen today, but you’re right on Buckley. His voice is…something. I think that struck me more than anything on this listen, though I’ve listened to the album countless times over the year. His voice is an instrument all its own.
Katy: I read that he has the same vocal range as Pavarotti. Apparently this is very rare.
David: The only current male singer I feel like can possibly do comparable things (though not the exact same) is Sufjan Stevens.
His upper range really is something. It isn’t even a falsetto. He can belt out those high notes.
Katy: I think of Grace as very operatic so this fact pleases me a lot. It sounds so effortless though, doesn’t it? There’s no strain in his voice at all. Really all other singers must have hated him.
David: Operatic is a good word. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s apt.
Katy: He manages to make it really natural and subtle though. There are amazing vocal gymnastics on Grace but it never sounds like he’s just showing off. If you imagine Mariah Carey singing those songs, it’s a whole other terrifying story.
David: Hey, whatever else we say about Mariah, we have to acknowledge that voice. I’d show off with it too.
The vocals on Grace kill me, to be honest. It’s one of the few albums that makes me aware of every note. There’s only one song on it I don’t particularly like (Corpus Christi Carol) but even that is lovely to listen to. It’s devastating that this was his only proper album.
So how did you come to this album?
Katy: To be honest, I don’t actually know. Around 2002 I had a kind of taste renaissance and became the discerning music snob I remain to this day, and Grace was one of the albums I caught up on at that time. I remember buying it on CD and playing it constantly in the kitchen at the Pizza Hut where I worked part-time while at uni until my manager told me the customers were concerned by all the wailing. I assume this referred to my attempts to sing along rather than Jeff’s astonishing vocal range.
How about you?
David: That’s an excellent back story.
I don’t remember either. It was definitely in adulthood, and probably no more than 10 years ago. I think (sheepishly) I probably heard his cover of Hallelujah first. I’ve had the vinyl for a while.
Katy: I think I heard Hallelujah first too; I believe it featured on an episode of The OC and that is most likely what made me buy the album.
I don’t think we should be sheepish about this.
David: We’ll get to Hallelujah in time, I guess. Shall we start on the songs?
Katy: Such a statement of intent! This song goes through so many phases. It is like a very angsty musical rollercoaster. I love the quiet-loud-quiet thing. It’s so mid-90s. Probably the only “typical” thing about this album.
David: Yes. One thing that struck me with this song and something that continues throughout the album, is the structure. They’re almost architectural in their assembly. They work through movements and have distinct phases, like you said. That’s probably what makes them operatic, like you were describing. What makes that all the more remarkable is that they are so emotional. These songs are controlled and structured, but bleed with feeling despite their precision and planning.
Katy: All true, yet with an experimental edge too. It’s like he and the band suddenly think “let’s try this!” and the songs shift in a direction you don’t expect. Mojo Pin is a great contradiction to the more overtly emotional songs too; it’s quite a shock if you’re expecting an album of Hallelujahs.
David: It’s the perfect opening for the breadth of what’s coming.
Katy: Like an overture at the theatre, to continue that metaphor.
David: Nice. I like that.
Katy: Then Grace builds on that sweep from delicate to big and loud. I am obsessed with the “oooooohhhhhh” bits in that song.
David: Content aside, “Mojo Pin” is an extremely 1990s song title.
Katy: Future discussion: ultimate 90s song titles.
David: Real quick before Grace, apparently there is some debate about whether or not Mojo Pin is about speed, or about a dream Buckley had about a black woman.
And yes to that bookmarked discussion.
Katy: Really? Sometimes I think it’s better to just not know this stuff.
David: You’re probably right, but sometimes I can’t help it.
Katy: I basically never think about what songs are about because I am very self-involved and like to make them all about me.
David: With that, we can move on to Grace.
Katy: Thank you.
David: This is another song that shows off everything that makes this album so great. His voice, the guitar, those rapid but precise drums.
Katy: It is another brilliantly structured song with wonderful build-up. The lyrics to this read like bad teenager poetry though. I think I will stick to just listening.
David: Yes. That is consistent, I think, and fits with the earnest 90s sincerity of the album’s emotion. Musically, it works. Lyrically, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.
There is so much emotion in this song.
Katy: It’s a testament to the astounding nature of the music that you can listen to this song for 15 years and not notice the silly lyrics.
David: Well, that and his enunciation is sometimes obscured in the sonic complexity of the music.
Katy: Especially at the end when there’s all the somehow very beautiful screaming.
David: There’s a possibility, probably best left unexplored, that Jeff Buckley was an insufferable emo kid before there was emo.
Katy: He was definitely an emo. This makes me like him even more
Please can we talk about Last Goodbye because I love that song enough to marry it.
David: It’s incredible.
That “Kiss me. Please kiss me.”
Katy: It’s the first song on the album with a really coherent narrative, and it’s so tragic and gorgeous. Yes, that line gets me too, especially the “out of desire not consolation” part. That makes up for any previous lyrical lapses.
David: For sure. It feels like a break from the first two songs. More melodic?
Katy: Definitely. I feel like he’s saying ‘ok, now that I’ve got your attention, here’s where I make you all fall in love with me.”
David: Totally. I think we all agree to do whatever he tells us by the time he hits that chorus.
Katy: Incidentally, if he’d been born 20 years later, he’d be a totally different artist, don’t you think? A major label would not release something this weird (because in a lot of ways it is) from such a good-looking guy. They’d want mass appeal and a Twitter presence and it would be horrible. In many ways, we are all lucky Grace came out when it did because, aside from it’s sonic appeal, it’s the kind of music that you’d struggle to find now, I think.
David: I think he’d be a Sufjan type. Sufjan is weird as fuck, and I see a lot of similarities between them.
Katy: I suppose Grace didn’t have massive commercial success in ‘94 so perhaps it wouldn’t make that much difference. I just think massive sacrifices would have to be made with the music once a label realised the guy singing it was such a dreamboat.
Shall I tell you about my Jeff Buckley pilgrimage?
David: While you’re doing that, I’ll continue my Sufjan thought. There is sexual ambiguity around both of them, I think. Buckley seems like one of the first male musicians of the last couple decades who straight guys could be like “Yeah, he’s attractive” about. He’s like emo Elvis.
Katy: Let’s start a band called Emo Elvis.
I am not overly familiar with Sufjan so I will just defer to your wisdom.
David: Katy, you must listen to Sufjan. He’s among my 10 favorite musicians. Listen to Carrie & Lowell or Come On Feel the Illinoise.
Katy: I will do this. I promise. He’s never really had a moment over here, although he is name-checked in a Snow Patrol song.
Katy: Yes. In the song Hands Open. I just checked it wasn’t something I’ve been mishearing for years.
I have little to say of Lilac Wine except to sigh and melt in its utter loveliness.
David: It turns out this is actually a cover, which I probably should have known. It was written by James Shelton and covered by Nina Simone, and now I need to hear that version, because she is divine.
Fun fact: my wife’s niece is named Nina Symone in her honor.
Katy: I like that.
David: Me too.
So Real then.
This is one of those songs where it’s best to just ignore the lyrics, because they’re kind of overwrought. The emotions are more evocative when you hear him singing about how real that was, before you know he’s just talking about these super basic images.
Katy: Funnily enough, I just looked up the lyrics and wished I hadn’t. Sonically it has that overwrought vibe that we’ve mentioned in some of the other songs, and I like that.
David: He makes it work, but it teeters right on the edge of being too much. He rides that line perfectly.
Katy: And then you get the opposite with Hallelujah, which is so beautifully controlled.
David: God. I don’t even know where to start.
Katy: So many versions of that song go overboard. This is the proper version for me.
David: I guess we need to address the fact that this might be the most over-covered song in history. It’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and yet it’s almost become this cliche. There are, in my opinion, three truly great versions: Cohen’s own, this one, and Rufus Wainwright’s.
Katy: This was the first I heard (sadly, I think when it was featured on The OC), so for me it’s the standard. This is probably wrong when it’s a Leonard Cohen song, but never mind. A boy at school once sang it so horribly I was honestly traumatised.
David: It’s just been done too much. We need to issue a moratorium on covering this song for the next 20 years. Then, maybe, someone can give it another crack. It’s to the point where even artists I like annoy me when they try it. Just…why? Do you think you’ll honestly bring something new to it?
Also, I might have you beat on where I first heard this: Shrek.
Katy: I love this fact.
David: Handle it wisely. In my defense, I was 19 when Shrek came out, and that’s about the right age to fall in love with this song.
Katy: I am not judging you. I promise. I remember listening to it on CD for the first time and even from the breath at the beginning I thought “now, this is something special.”
David: I love what he does with the rhythm of the individual phrases and inflections, adjusting them just enough so you have to really pay attention to them.
And those opening guitar notes. My heart.
Katy: This version is probably one of my favourite songs. It’s just so lovely. All so gentle and tragic.
David: Absolutely. I can have trouble sometimes blocking out the cultural baggage we’ve discussed with the prevalence of this song, but taken on its own, absolutely. It’s just perfect songwriting, and Buckley performs it perfectly.
Katy: Lover You Should Have Come Over.
Possibly the perfect song?
David: It’s very good. I like how it builds, but unlike some of the earlier songs, it never gets operatic. It stays perfectly restrained.
Katy: And it’s one of the songs on which the lyrics are actually quite beautiful. “Too young to hold on, too old to just break free and run” is one I particularly love.
And the bit about a kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder; that makes me die a little bit.
David: Yeah, that is nice. This might be his best song lyrically.
So tell me your thoughts about Corpus Christi Carol.
Katy: My thoughts are usually “skip.” It’s a bit too much for me.
David: I get that, but I like a lot of things about it. First of all, his goddamn voice. It’s just so pretty. How does one even have a voice like that?
The song doesn’t really fit on the album, but taken on its own, it’s quite lovely and haunting.
I love the back story for it too. Apparently a friend introduced him to the song in high school, so he just wanted to sing it for him. it doesn’t fit at all, and that’s kind of what I like about it.
Katy: That is a nice way for it to come to be on the album.
David: I have a friend who was driving home from a New Years Eve party late one snowy evening, and this song came on his college radio station. It feels like the perfect weird thing to have come on at that moment, like the b-side to Auld Lang Syne.
Katy: I get that. I agree that it doesn’t fit, but you’re right to say it works. It is a pretty eclectic album, which I often forget because I am so inclined to over-listen to the songs I love and not pay much attention to the few I’ve never really connected with.
David: Speaking of not connecting, Eternal Life is probably my least favorite song on the album.
The opening is so faux-tough, and while we’ve agreed to not pay attention to lyrics, these ones are so forced and egregious. It’s like “Racism is bad and I’m real mad about it, guys. You can tell because of the guitars on this song.”
Katy: Oh I quite like Eternal Life. The return of the histrionic rage is quite appealing to me.
David: But it feels like false rage to me. He’s such a romantic, and while I believe him that he thinks racism and war are bad, I believe him a lot more when he’s crying because his girlfriend broke up with him. His emotion here sounds play-acted to me.
Katy: Fair point. I like the contrast between this and Corpus Christi Carol. It seems like something nobody else would attempt, especially in an era when we had to listen to albums properly and without shuffle.
David: Dream Brother is a weird way to end this album.
We have a saying here in Ohio about the month of March: “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” We can get blizzards the first week of March and then be in the 70s with flowers sprouting by the end. This album feels that way. It starts so operatically, and then the song is so chill. It’s a good song, but I think I would have preferred something more grandiose to polish it off.
Katy: Hang on, what about Forget Her? Is that not the last track?
David: Forget Her is not on the original album. There was a bunch of drama about that. He never wanted it included, and so the album didn’t initially, and then he died and his record label was like “fuck his last wishes” and put it on all the subsequent pressings. So my original vinyl version doesn’t have it.
Katy: I did not know that! Dream Brother is really weird. It’s like the overlong noodly track he’d probably play live and that would be when everyone would go to the bar.
Also after our conversation when I boldly said there is no good music any more I have discovered about 8 zillion amazing bands and artists on Spotify. Now I am cool again.
David: Right? So many good bands. I look forward to our post-2000 music discussions which we’ll get to once our kids are in college.