Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Sex and Jeff Buckley

I went rummaging in my father’s record collection on Sunday evening. And there, nestled erroneously between his records, was my 180g reissue of Jeff Buckley’s Grace. I’m listening to it now and, while thinking of those I know who hate him, his voice, his style, his legacy, I’m thinking about how misinterpreted he is.

He's bound to his reputation as a tragic troubadour, heir to his father's mantle, an angelic-voiced crooner who sang woebegone, sad songs in his unearthly falsetto before departing, via the Mississippi, for indisputable heavenly climes.

It’s bollocks.

How can anyone listen to this record and hear anything less than filth in it? Buckley’s alchemy was in the soiled, sinful humanity of his music, shockingly deployed through that seemingly pure voice. That falsetto isn’t employed to sing virginal songs. Even the song titles he writes or chooses give away his motives - Lover, You Should Have Come Over.... Mojo Pin.... Lilac Wine. From the first song, he sings about sex, cravings, deprivation, revenge, morosity, drunkenness, hallucination, himself as slave and seducer, woman as madonna and dominatrix and witch - "Send whips of opinion down my back, give me more".

If he had lived, he would have had ample time to build a more nuanced and fleshed out reputation as a man and an artist, but as is often the case with the youthfully lost, an ill-fitting martyr's halo has been forced over his head, and as DJs play his songs over the radio, they opine blandly about the beauty of his voice, their insincere devotion to the towering idea of him blinding them to the shit-hot awesomeness of what he actually put on record.

Listen to Last Goodbye. "Kiss me, please kiss me / But kiss me out of desire, babe, and not consolation..." That’s not a song about some well-mannered chinless wonder sadly bidding adieu to his lady as she leaves (probably for altogether more experienced climes). Listen to that bump-ba-dump rhythm, all hips and sideways glances, frustration and slyness and thrust. It translates the ecstasy of urgency, the farewell fuck, physical need even through the blinding fog of impending loss. Even as he expresses heartbreak, he’s still inviting his muse into bed. The melodrama, which would be unbearable if that were all there was, is grounded by earthy sexual desire. We’ve all ached for someone, not just because we loved them or lost them, but because we wanted them, felt an almost enraged need for them to satisfy us. That’s why that song works, not because it’s terribly delicate and sad.

It’s a bitter, if unthwartable, insult to his memory that those who march under his banner are the sexless, acoustic-toting “singer-songwriters” (did ever two words strike more fear into the heart of the discerning listener?) who sit on their stools and make earnest faces over their guitars as they sing serious songs about absolutely fucking nothing at all. This isn’t a sparse, folky record; it’s lush and indulgent, the guitars buried among flickering, suggestive percussion, fat organs and strings that swell and recede like tides. Nor is it a pompous shrine to the singer's own boring observations and experiences; three of the ten songs are still-startling covers, and Buckley's own songs are like weird dreams, by turns arresting and eerie, absurd, immediate and then suddenly intangible. They are, primarily, about desire and sensation.

The construction, the production and the intent owe as much to Prince as to any white singer-songwriter (check out that impish Prince “waah!” towards the end of Lover, You Should Have Come Over). The guitars don't thrum respectfully, they swerve and growl and wail. The eponymous track is rumbling and rhythmic from the start, his voice swinging back and forth, first inviting, then terrible and uncontrollable. And it means that when he does stray into terribly Catholic territory, there's something subversive and almost obscene about it; the professed innocence overlaying something tainted and experienced. It's no coincidence that his take on the Corpus Christi Carol is succeeded by the iconoclastic Eternal Life, smashing a contemptuous path through religion in all its organised guises - and again, a syncopated rhythm snaking through it, weaving left and right as if to corrupt all it can reach.

It maddens me that many who now come to Jeff Buckley will come via his inadequate acolytes, expecting to encounter the godhead of passionless, strumming earnestness. Grace gets held up as a sophisticated rock record, a benchmark for a certain kind of indie, and it's so misleading, because through and through, it's a soul record, a rhythm 'n' blues record in the original sense - and, as it happens, a magnificent one.


All Thrills No Frills said...

A necessary post! Not overly analysed Buckley's music before, so thanks for writing in this slant.

Charponnaise said...

Whoops, I didn't see your comment before now - thanks, glad you liked it!