In a word, Jeff Buckley's posthumous SKETCHES (for my sweetheart, the
drunk) (Columbia) is bittersweet.
In another, it's ironic.
The collection, a two-disc set of new studio tracks and works-in-progress assembled by Buckley's mother, former Soundgarden leader Chris Cornell and others, is packed with tragically sad songs colored with lyrics with repeated references to water and drowning. The highly acclaimed songwriter drowned in the Mississippi River outside Memphis, Tenn., on May 29. The long-awaited new LP hits American record stores May 26, three days shy of the one-year anniversary of his death.
In addition to the 10 tracks on the first disc recorded with producer and former Television guitarist Tom Verlaine during Buckley's final, fated studio sessions, SKETCHES includes 10 four-track drafts that Buckley -- who released only one album prior to this, Grace (1994) -- had reportedly planned to present to his bandmates: guitarist Michael Tighe, drummer Parker Kindred and bassist Mick Grondahl. The band was en route to Memphis when Buckley was first reported missing off the shores of the Mississippi.
As bittersweet as they sound in retrospect, the 20 tracks on SKETCHES (for my sweetheart, the drunk) are also beautiful and show continued signs of an artist determined to experiment with his talent -- even, it seems, when taking that chance posed certain risks. There are sad melodies, sudden mood swings, all riding on Buckley's trademark vocal acrobatics. And there are some apparently new influences that show their face on the LP, coming from such unlikely places as Radiohead's The Bends album (1995) and even drawing from the tail end of the grunge rock movement.
"Everything about how long it has taken to release this album has to do
with everyone involved wanting to do the right thing," said Buckley's mother,
Mary Guibert, in a Columbia Records press release distributed after the album release was announced. The collection, which should delight the majority of Buckley's fans worldwide, contains the following tracks:
Disc One: Recorded with Verlaine in Memphis and New York in 1996 and 1997 and remastered by Andy Wallace.
"The Sky Is a Landfill"
A Led Zeppelinesque collage of guitar sounds set to Buckley's trademark vocal style -- sweet and lush high-notes alternating with low, graceful tones -- and
dramatic lyrics. "Throw up your shame of being a slave to the system," Buckley wails. "Let's see you take another drag."
"Everybody Here Wants You"
A smooth, jazzy piece marked by tranquil bass strums and Buckley's sweet
soprano voice in overdubbed harmony. The song, a gentle, breathy composition, is as soulful as Grace's "Last Goodbye" was poignant, flavored with a tinge of soul and R&B.
A slightly bouncy song, marked prominently by Buckley's range of vocal
expression. "Tell me," Buckley asks, "am I cursed, am I blessed? I can't
tell." Another of Buckley's gentle, guitar-driven, melodic lullabies.
Here's the first evidence of the influence that Radiohead's The Bends had on the album. In a high-end vocal style not unlike Radiohead singer Thom Yorke's, Buckley tells a tale of love -- or of scorned friendship, depending on your point of view. Soft, jangling guitars ring beneath his haunting, emotion-laden vocal. "I miss my beautiful friend," he cries out gently. "I had to send it away to bring her back again."
"New Year's Prayer"
Cavernous drums open this song, laying the foundation for a series of -- once
again -- Radiohead-like vocal chimes and echoes. "Feel no shame for what you like," Buckley intones amid reverb-touched, synthesized background sound.
"Yard of Blonde Girls"
Imagine the campy backdrop of "Fire-Water-Burn" by the Bloodhound Gang.
Add equal parts power-pop songwriter Matthew Sweet and overdubbed high-and-low vocal snips, and you have the most winding (and whiny) track on SKETCHES. Again, there's a strong Radiohead influence here: "Yard of Blonde Girls" could be the distant cousin of Radiohead's "No Surprises" (RealAudio excerpt) or "Anyone Can Play Guitar."
A tranquil, calm meditation on trust -- and having it squashed. The song
contains the first of many references to water -- eerie, considering the
circumstances of Buckley's death. "Just like the ocean, always in love with moon," Buckley sings sweetly at one point. "Just like the friction running in your river bed," he moans at another. It's arguably one of this collection's prettiest tracks.
The most jangly and high-pitched Buckley track to date, highlighted
again by his vocal extremes. Tribal drums give way to a violent breakdown toward the middle of the song, when Buckley's vocals sneak -- for an instant -- into that darkish, lower range shared by his friend Chris Cornell.
"Nightmares by the Sea"
An urgent, somewhat eerie track, if not for its irony-laden title, then for lyrics such as "I've loved so many times, and I've drowned them all" and "Stay with me under these waves tonight." "Nightmares" is a diatribe against scorned love: "All your lovers know why," Buckley repeats. "You know damn well where you've gone."
"You & I"
By far the spookiest SKETCHES sketch. An almost a cappella performance, save for echoing screams that sound like they're emanating
from some dark and forgotten place in Buckley's heart. Another wet reference: "I said we will feel the wave fall away from us in time," Buckley wails painfully. The dull buzz of noise in the background only increases the chill of the song.
Disc Two: A collection of four-track song drafts recorded by Buckley in the course of planning his sophomore LP.
"Nightmares by the Sea"
More than a reworked version of the track that appears on Disc One.
Suggesting the jangling riff of Nirvana's classic "Come as You Are" injected, however, with a sense of great urgency. The tune also calls to mind the mysterious melody of "A Forest" by the Cure, making this version and its jagged, heartbroken lilt sound more sinister than its Disc One counterpart.
"New Year's Prayer"
Another reworked track, not so different from -- nor less Radiohead-sounding than -- its predecessor. This version, however, comes off as remarkably better-produced and arranged.
"Haven't You Heard"
This song is Buckley's sharpest-edged single to date, perhaps a lead-off
track come time to promote SKETCHES to radio. Buckley wails the
song's opening verse, bringing to mind the vocal cry of Mike Peters of the Alarm, even early Bono of U2. Jagged guitars abound. An attitude-ridden, treble-infused sonic breakdown ensues.
"I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby (If We Wanted to Be)"
A sample loop opens the song, giving way to a few shards of
electric guitar and Buckley's breathy vocals. "I'm not with you but of you,"
he cries, backed by a wall of feedback and razor-sharp guitar riffs.
"Back in New York City"
An interesting take on this Peter Gabriel-era Genesis classic, with a dominant guitar riff alternating between whispering feedback and Buckley's soulful vocal. The feedback shifts into synthesized keyboard by the end of the song, fluttering with suspended bits of sound.
"Murder Suicide Meteor Slave"
Another jagged, Radiohead-styled piece. Buckley sounds almost
identical to Yorke on this one, and his guitar is fed through a fuzzy computer. "No stars to revolve around, we are fashioning the news," Buckley screams. "Sickened by the rail of a graveyard growl -- no, it's not long for you."
Jagged yet again. In a 20-second opening, a processed wail of the word "happy" morphs through several sonic incarnations, from a whimsical exclamation to a drawling, slo-mo sludge. The rest of the song is coarse -- a lot of treble set against Buckley's sometimes over-modulated vocals.
"Your Flesh Is So Nice"
Imagine lo-fi pioneer and Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard impersonating the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger as the lead singer of the New York Dolls. That's "Your Flesh Is So Nice" -- nothing more than Buckley and a guitar, swinging slappy riff-fits against the haughty bawl of "Your flesh is so n-i-i-i-iiiiice!"
The lowest of Buckley's lo-fi efforts on the rough-draft portion of SKETCHES, this song is the calmest of the non-studio tracks. "You left
some stars in my belly," Buckley sings. Faster than the spiritual bellow of Buckley's prettier pop moments, yet lush nonetheless.
Closing Buckley's SKETCHES is the most instrumentally oriented track of the collection, a smoky blues guitar clip, lifted once again by Buckley's
amazing range of vocal techniques, from low-gut grunts to airy, breathy and
powerful highs. "When my life is over and my time has gone out," he
sings, "my friends and my loved ones ... I will leave with no doubt."
"But one thing's for certain," he eerily continues, ending the song on one of
his highest vocal notes of the album. "When it comes my time ... I'll
leave this old world with a satisfied mind."