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'98's Best: Jeff Buckley's Nightmare

On his upcoming album, the late Jeff Buckley gets to the heart of things.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at

1998's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Sunday, April 19.]

I have been driving around these past few days, listening over and over and over to a song off the rather remarkable soon-to-be-released album by the late Jeff Buckley, SKETCHES (for my sweetheart, the drunk).

The song is called "Nighmares By The Sea."

It is, for me, the highlight of this album. In fact, it is one of those songs that makes everything else seem irrelevant while it plays.

There are two version of "Nighmares By The Sea" on the album. The first was produced by legendary Television guitarist Tom Verlaine, and it is good. Real good. It is a more mainstream version of the song, although words like mainstream or commercial need to be taken loosely, when one is talking about the work of Jeff Buckley.

Jeff Buckley was one of those rare singers that show up, perhaps, once a decade -- maybe. Like Aretha Franklin, Buckley could really sing. He could hit the notes required dead on. He could play with a melody; he could add meaning to a word by the way he stretched it out or cut if off abruptly. He was like a jazz singer, or a blues singer.

Jeff Buckley was a real artist.

Like Van Morrison (at least in the days of Astral Weeks and the handful of albums that came after it), Buckley sang emotion. On his one real album, Grace, nothing felt phony. Every word mattered.

Now I've never felt that sincerity and art, necessarily, had anything to do with one another. I know plenty of very sincere wannabe artists who sing what they feel, and the result is fake as the canned line on a Hallmark card.

Jeff Buckley was a whole other story. He sang from his heart, and the result is the kind of art that you come back to after the midnight hour has struck.

Listening to "Nightmares By The Sea," I want to drive out to the ocean before the sun rises. I want to stand on the cliff, feel the cold wind, watch the dark waves crash, and feel the force of life.

Both versions of "Nightmares By The Sea" are breathtaking. In fact, if I had never heard the second version, I would be listening incessantly to the first one, with it's pounding, mesmerizing rhythm, it's wiry Cobain-style guitar riff, and it's mythic lyrics.

But the other version, the four-track demo version, blows everything on this album away. It is edgy and scary.

"Nightmares By The Sea" is about the always messy business of love. On the tape I have, it's hard to make out all the lyrics, and that just adds to the mystery. "Don't know what she asks for," he repeats. Then he sings, "... Nightmares bind them..." Or perhaps it's "Nightmares bind their..."

The moment of reckoning comes during the bridge.

The music drops to just a sparse electric guitar. Buckley sings: "Stay, with me, under these waves, tonight..."

And as he sings "waves, tonight," drums hit, then, in a flash, it's back to just guitar.

"Be free, for once, in your life..." he continues. And as he sings "life" the drums return, then there's a pause while he delivers "tonight," and then they return, and the song rocks on to it's conclusion.

Plenty of reviews will be written that will point out the irony of these lines, and the fact that Jeff Buckley drowned.

That's not what I think about when I listen to "Nightmares By The Sea."

It takes me to that cliff, overlooking the beach, before sunrise. And the crashing of spirits, of souls into one another. Like my favorite Jeff Buckley song off Grace, "Lover, You Should've Come Over," "Nightmares By The Sea" clears away all the bullshit, and leaves me with just the real stuff, the hard stuff.

"Stay, with me, under these waves, tonight/ Be free, for once, in your life, tonight."