Release Date: Mar 11, 2016
Record label: Columbia
Before his intense take on Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah felled listeners with its exquisite, impassioned vocals, emotion on the verge of spilling over, Jeff Buckley made studio recordings of other songs he hadn’t written. These and the odd original track, accompanied only by guitar, were laid down as a warm-up for Grace – and then forgotten for two decades. Opener Just Like A Woman resembles Dylan even less than his Hallelujah does Cohen: slowed down, its rhythms skewed, with Buckley savouring and burnishing every syllable, leaving a trail of shining liquid amber that leaps and falls.
When Jeff Buckley waded into the muddy waters of the Mississippi singing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” on May 29, 1997 so began one of music’s greatest tragedies. Aged 28, with just one album released—but hey what an album!—Grace and another My Sweetheart the Drunk half complete, Buckley was one of the decade’s most gifted talents. More music was, of course, not to be.
Jeff Buckley recorded the ten tracks that comprise the 2016 compilation You and I in February 1993, roughly four months after he signed to Columbia Records. He'd start recording Grace, his lone completed studio album, with producer Andy Wallace a few months after he laid down these sketches, but despite containing a solo demo of "Grace," the closest connection to the music on You and I is the coffeehouse crooner showcased on Live at Sin-e, the EP released as a teaser toward the conclusion of 1993. Like that EP and its accompanying 2003 expansion, You and I relies on covers delivered by Buckley, accompanied by nothing more than his electric guitar, strummed as if it were an acoustic.
Given the dearth of studio material Jeff Buckley was given the chance to bring to fruition in his short lifetime, the excavation of the late singer-songwriter’s work has always felt craven, if well-intentioned. Like the second half of 1998’s Sketches: For My Sweetheart the Drunk, the songs on the latest posthumous Buckley release, You and I, are just that: sketches. The 10 demos here, mostly covers along with two early versions of original songs, were recorded shortly after the artist was signed to Columbia Records in 1993, all performed solo and ostensibly never intended to be heard by the public.
Here we are again. It’s been nearly 20 years since Jeff Buckley’s untimely death by drowning, a timespan in which posthumous releases of various sorts has come to outnumber his solo work more than ten to – literally – one: live albums, compilations, EP sets, and now demos. Nevertheless, the musical gravedigging will continue until the vaults are barren, which for Jeff Buckley is probably pretty soon.
There’s only one new original track on the latest installment in Jeff Buckley’s posthumous catalog, You And I, but it’s not even really a song. “Dream of You and I” features the soft-spoken Buckley describing a dream of watching a psych band playing a song at an AIDS rally, gently fingerpicking as he goes back and forth between singing the hook. It’s self-admittedly unfinished, something Buckley says he’s going to finish.
Recently rediscovered in an archive, You and I was the 26-year-old Jeff Buckley’s first session for Sony. Backed up with eight perfectly serviceable covers (Led Zeppelin, Sly Stone, two by the Smiths), the big selling points here are early takes of two of his own songs. Grace is as explosive and spellbinding as the more familiar later version; Dream of You and I, however, isn’t so much a song as Buckley recording a “memo to self” about an idea for a song.
Putting to the test the number of posthumous albums that one died-too-soon musician can bear comes You & I, the fifth collection of tracks – in addition to five live albums – that have been released since Jeff Buckley’s magnum opus, 1994’s Grace. It is painful, not least because these are unpolished demos and covers on which Buckley’s voice is tart enough to make your face pucker. Consider the raw vocal olympics on his version of Jevetta Steele’s Calling You or Sly and the Family Stone’s Everyday People and tell me you wouldn’t prefer to hear cats clawing a blackboard, or at the very least a bit of Auto-Tune.
Given the vault-emptying that has followed the 1997 death of Jeff Buckley — who released only one album, the shivering, searing “Grace,” during his lifetime — it’d be easy to view “You And I” as mere barrel-scraping. But there’s a tremendous amount of preserved intimacy on these unearthed first studio recordings. It’s hard not to imagine the label listening to the singer’s whirlwind take on Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” or (especially) his own churning “Grace” and realizing precisely how unique a find Buckley was.
When Jeff Buckley drowned in the Mississippi River in 1997 at age 30, he was still something of a musical phantom, represented by one indelible studio album, "Grace," and a live EP. His you-had-to-be-there live performances suggested those recordings had only scraped the surface of his talent. With taste that spanned jazz ballads to heavy metal, an expansive folk-soul sensibility and a multi-octave voice that could crack even the hardest facades, Buckley was destined to be mourned as much for the music he would've made as for what he left behind.