Buckley - Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk
the wake of his accidental death by drowning at the age of
30 on May 29, 1997, it is all-but-impossible to hear Jeff
Buckley's Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk with
objective ears. Factor in the equally-untimely demise of Buckley's
father -- the uncompromising jazz-folk fusionist Tim Buckley
-- of a heroin overdose at age 28, and the Musical Fates suddenly
seem not so much innocently hit-or-miss as coldly calculating
and actively vindictive.
is a danger, of course, in blindly mythologizing those who
die before their time, for it is through even the most minor
shiftings of history -- the lives and legacies of our predecessors
eyed through a comforting gauze of ignorance and nostalgia
-- that devils are deified, holocausts are absolved, and the
wholly mediocre are granted access to immortality.
would James Dean be "James Dean" if he had lived to take on
a Brando bloat? Would JFK still reign in our collective memory
as King of Camelot? Would Janis, Jim, and Jimi still be bewitching
us in this paranoid era of impeachment and conspiracy, or
would their once-fiery lives long-since been damped to ash
-- reduced to so much fizzled fodder for "Can This Career
Be Saved?" magazine sidebars and VH1 "Whatever Became Of?"
these are things we can never know. All we can know -- and
ceaselessly interpret, evaluate, and debate -- is the work
they left behind.
left Sketches -- a "2-CD, 20-song collection of new
studio and four-track recordings" released nearly a year to
the day after his body was recovered from the Memphis, Mississippi.
With lyrics freely invoking oceans, seas, rivers, and reservoirs,
it is a most ominous epitaph, an unintended requiem that eerily
mirrors the man's impending death, shard by slivered shard.
as with his 1993 debut Grace (worth the price of admission
for its haunting acoustic cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"
alone), Buckley proves himself less a master of effective
songcraft than of evocative soundscapes. The strongest songs,
as such, are the first disc's " Everybody Here Wants You"
and "Nightmares By The Sea" -- the former scoring with its
smoky, soulful groove, the latter with its driving sense of
dread and spookily prescient poetry:
so many times
And I've drowned them all
From the coral graves they rise up
Under these waves tonight
And be free
For once in your life tonight
Sketches' soundscapes are best represented by the pitch-black
pairing of "New Year's Prayer" -- its sinister metronomical
meter and multi- tracked incantations suggesting a full-moon-illumined
Druid sacrificial ceremony -- and "You & I" -- sounding like
nothing so much as Romeo bidding adieu to Juliet within the
resounding bowels of the Capulet tomb.
Buckley's expressive, falsetto-friendly tenor (Thom York-esque,
with a dash of Robert Plant) swings nimbly from a whisper
to a wail, from the sweetest coos and come-ons to the lustiest
blood-gorged growls. Whether the songs are subtly soaring
("Morning Theft") or puckishly rutting in the muck ("Your
Flesh Is So Nice") -- Buckley proves himself all-but-incapable
of committing anything less than his deepest feelings to disc.
But make no mistake -- not every sketch is an exercise in
death and exorcism, as the sly, slurred wordplay of "Yard
of Blonde Girls" gives way to the bouncing bass and lightly
chiming guitars of "Witches' Rave."
second disc is the decidedly "sketchier" effort here, though
repeated listenings eventually yield rich rewards. The centerpiece
is a sextet of four-track recordings Buckley produced himself
while living in Memphis. These are far from pretty pieces,
rife with fuzzy feedback and cling-clanging industrial percussion.
But what they lack in studio sophistication and shellac, these
four-track testaments more than make up for in intimacy, affording
the listener the unique opportunity to eavesdrop on an oft-times
violent game of hide-and-seek between a man and his muse.
Standard rock conventions are effectively stripped away, all
the better to spotlight the musician's soul, the bare bedrock
upon which beauty is built.
four-track tempest crests, Buckley graces us with a glimpse
of spring with the spare, sparkling "Jewel Box" and the bluesy,
swan-song strum of Red Foley's much-covered "Satisfied Mind."
The change in weather is a welcome one, though these late-ascending
suns -- even as they warm and comfort us -- also serve to
illuminate that most sad and pointless of postulations: what
might have been? If only history could be shifted -- Fates
made less angry; rivers more forgiving -- oh, what might have
think of it, a paunchy, balding James Dean might have been
a lovely sight, indeed.
for My Sweetheart the Drunk