There is a tragicomic story behind my love of Jeff Buckley’s Grace. It was the Easter holidays at university, and all of my housemates had gone home to see their families. I, however, had to work (as well as pretend to write my dissertation) and so I found myself, for one long weekend, stranded, alone, in my cold university house.
I distinctly remember being alone in the house on Friday evening, feeling exceedingly low, and deliberating for hours over whether or not buy myself a bottle of wine. In the end, I rushed out to the local Sainsbury’s moments before it closed, and purchased myself the cheapest and strongest bottle of red I could find. I felt guilty the whole walk home, knowing that drinking wouldn’t make me feel any better.
I poured myself a glass as I fried some vegetables and onions for a late dinner of fajitas, and I put on the album as I stood sipping and smoking by the open kitchen door. I’d been meaning to listen to the album for weeks and not found the time. As I looked forward to the stomach ache my dinner was going to cause (I’m intolerant to most of the foodstuffs used in fajitas) and pensively sucked on my cigarette, ‘Mojo Pin’ faded in.
Still ‘Mojo Pin’ remains my favourite song on the album. It’s both psychedelic and hard rock at the same time, and the crooning whines of Buckley in the introduction remind me of Thom Yorke’s vocal style. The beginning of this song could easily be on a Radiohead album—those off-kilter, jazz-inspired drums sound like they belong on Amnesiac. And then the song builds into a desperate, addicted climax.
Nowhere on this album, though, are Buckley’s vocal abilities so convincing than on the following track, ‘Grace’. Around this point I was stirring the meal in my wok and returning to the adjacent front room in order to find a suitable film to pass the evening. (Of which more later.) It really kicks off at four minutes. I remember sitting on the sofa as ‘Grace’ built to its incredible climax. I had no idea what he meant when he screamed ‘Wait in the fire’ over and over again, because all I could focus on was his elongated, piercing, goose bump-inducing scream. (The one which begins around 4:45. It gives me the shivers just thinking about it.)
This was the album, then, with which I was spending the rest of my evening. I paused it after ‘Lilac Wine’ (a rather fitting cover of, I like to think, the Nina Simone version (though it was written fifteen years before she recorded it) considering the evening I was having) and sat down to eat my fajitas on the sofa, with a couple of pots of salsa and sour cream, a bottle of ketchup and roughly half a block of mature cheddar. (Pilgrim’s Choice, obviously.) The film I’d chosen was The Big Lebowski, still one of my favourite films: so absurd, so weird, so ridiculous, so stoner, so funny. But I don’t remember enjoying it much that particular evening. I was low, and, by the end, a little drunk.
And so I found myself, at around one in the morning, a full bottle of red wine deep, after my umpteenth viewing of The Big Lebowski, with my pants round my ankles, masturbating fruitlessly to a twenty-year-old still of Carrie Fisher from Return of the Jedi on the big screen in my university front room, salsa still round my chops and, frankly, still a rather deep and dark hole somewhere just below my ribcage. I don’t recommend it, but in hindsight it makes for a rather pleasing complex sentence, and from my marginally improved present mental state I can laugh at the fact that I thought a cult comedy film and a £4.75 bottle of Sainsbury’s Shiraz would cure my blues.
That was my first experience of Grace. In the weeks following that night, I listened to it on repeat while I walked to and from lectures, in my room as I wrote or studied, in the kitchen when I cooked meals, even at the gym. At risk of sounding like one of the worst kinds of music snobs, my least favourite was ‘Hallelujah’—but honestly not because of its popularity; because it is one of the worst songs on the album, coupled with ‘Corpus Christi Carol’.
Before writing this piece, I had not listened to Buckley’s record in some months. Putting it back on in order to frame my mind, I remember once again why this record affected me so much. It is not just that the music is so powerful—powerful is the only word I can think of here which suffices to describe the intensity of this album—and it’s not just that it is so complicated. It’s not even how satisfying, how rewarding it is to listen to. It’s the fact that, aside from ‘Hallelujah’, there is nothing particularly happy or encouraging about it at all. It’s not dreary, but it’s certainly not optimistic; it is a furious album, with a few sprinklings of sorrow here and there. It sounds like feeling young and lost and angry. Some songs on here sound like progressive rock songs which almost wouldn’t be out of place on an Earth or Godspeed You Black Emperor! album (‘Dream Brother’ springs to mind); others sound like the leftovers of a soft-punk album, to put together two words which certainly shouldn’t go together (take ‘Eternal Life’). All of them, though, are brimming with emotion, and are so thoughtful and brilliantly written that it is no wonder the album was so well received and yet did not perform in the charts on release.
As with much music like this, though, there is not enough of it. It is a tragedy that Buckley went the way he did, but much was tragic about his life. He only met his father once at eight years old, and when Tim Buckley passed away, his son was not invited to the funeral. To me, it doesn’t feel like his bitter experiences surrounding his father are apparent on the album, but they must be there—how couldn’t they be? Either way, I wonder, had Buckley (the younger) survived, if he would have surpassed this album. How he would have done it is anybody’s guess.
There is little hopeful about Grace. It is, in fact, a rather despairing album. It offers nothing in the way of comfort or respite, and it does not hold back, despite its restraint. It is brutally honest—painfully honest—and every single song seems to be a story of sadness and loss, of anger and frustration. Grace does not want you to feel reassured; it is an expertly produced and fantastically realised realist story of anguish. Every time I hear ‘Mojo Pin’ I remember when I sank a bottle of cheap red by myself and moped around my university house, complaining to myself about my stomach ache and wondering why I felt so miserable. From the Christmas period to listening to this album, I’d been toying with the idea of getting help for myself, with figuring out what was going on in my head and actually trying to make a start on dealing with it—and this album was one reason I made the choice to do it.