Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”

Cover for Jeff Buckley's album

This week, I’ve been listening to Jeff Buckley’s debut and final LP “Grace” from 1994. My initial introduction to this album came through hearing Buckley’s tender cover of John Cale’s 1991 version of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” Around 2005, I finally heard the rest of the album with some disappointment. I felt jaded about the whole charming 90s singer-songwriter alternative guitarist thing and that’s all I heard in it. I probably also just skipped through the tracks without giving them a fair listen. This album is still not really my thing and I’m not sure why yet. Maybe I just feel like there’s a little too much seductive charm.

This collection presents great performances of songs with great songwriting. Jeff Buckley shares songwriting credits with former Captain Beefheat Magical bandmember Gary Lucas . Buckley is an amazing guitarist who really knows how to capture attention and evoke emotion with is vocals. He likes to rock, while appreciating and uses the power of intimate detail and nuance. Whatever his end-goal, what Buckley built and developed songs to work as a whole expressing emotion. Not simple emotions, but layered emotions that frequently mix longing, remorse, anger, and love. He also plays much of the accompaniment on the album with bass being played by Mick Gr√łndahl, some organ by Loris Holland, Matt Johnson plays additional percussion. Among others, Clif Norrell and Andy Wallace produced and engineered the recording.

Mojo Pin

Mojo Pin opens the album with a slow fade-in atmospheric effects on guitars and keyboards. Clean electric guitar then plays a lithe arpeggio repeating I7sus4 – I9. This is not your average guitar-work, but rather the creation of somebody with a jazz background who knows his stuff. He grew up in a musical household, took a year of music school after high school and played in bands of various genres. This song travels though some of those genres. It starts with some gentle jazz-inspired soul, into alternative ballad, and drives into some hard-rock alternative towards the end. Still, an emotive atmosphere of blue night runs throughout.

Lyrically, the song discusses the use of drugs to deal with the pain of separation from a lover. He combines the lover and drugs through vague language, so we can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. The lover was emotionally abusive when she is around, and now she is gone. The speaker turns to shooting up heroin (the mojo pin) to avoiding crying for her. In the chorus he calls her a “black beauty,” this presumably is a reference to her race. “Black beauty” is also a slang term for methamphetamine, but I think he might be making a reference to heroin’s slang name “horse.” The lyrics combine lover and drug into one: the cause and cure of heartache are joined and become indistinguishable.

The lines of the verses rhyme, but there is not a consistent rhyme scheme, at all. Through the five verses we see: AABB, ABCB, ABCC, AABC, AABA. The chorus uses AABB. Musically, he takes long pauses after each verse, giving a guitar strum.. and accompaniment rests as he draws out a mournful high note. Through poetic, near mystical, imagery, the speaker weaves emotional manipulation blaming the hurtful lover for his heroin use.

I’m lying in my bed, the blanket is warm
This body will never be safe from harm
Still feel your hair, black ribbons of coal
Touch my skin to keep me whole

Oh, if only you’d come back to me
If you laid at my side
Wouldn’t need no Mojo Pin
To keep me satisfied

Lover, You Should Have Come Over

One of the most complete songs on the album, “Lover, You Should Have Come Over” delivers a soulful mixture of longing, apology, and regret. He acknowledges that he’s been immature, which has caused him to be unable to maintain a relationship. He also describes that he lacks the desire to settle down. What’s being described here perhaps is a passing moment of remorse, because he ruined a relationship with somebody truly special.

The music conveys the emotion of the lyrics beautifully. This song is a perfect example of vocals and accompaniment working in harmony with lyrics. Guitar, bass and drum provide a soulful blues. Again, he does not limit himself to simple major and minor chords, but spreads 7ths,9ths, and 11ths throughout. The verses open open with I-ii (with a flattened 7th providing a step between the I and ii) played twice. The ii gets modified through ii9-ii-ii7-ii. Then the next two lines repeat ii-III-vi-I-IV-III. Again, Buckley plays these as augmented chords, suspended chords, and 6th. Organ pads the sound with extended chords, giving the song a gospel feel. In this song, the speaker is coming to a realization and pleads for forgiveness that will never come.

Again, there is rhyming in this song, but there’s not consistent rhyme scheme. But what he does repeat is the use of “too young/too old” to suggest that he’s recognizing he’s at an awkward turning point in his life. Despite this recognition, he feels he’s stuck at that space forever, as if this small maturation is the only maturation. Perhaps the best one and most direct is in the second verse, which state that he is “too young to hold on and too old to just break free and run.” He can’t commit, but he’s lost the will to fight the obligation. That’s telling.

Broken down and hungry for your love
With no way to feed it
Where are you tonight, child
You know how much I need it
Too young to hold on
And too old to just break free and run

Last Goodbye

Jeff Buckley’s song “Last Goodbye” gives us a great example of a departure song. With the breezy driving acoustic guitar, the pushing drums, and rolling bass, it all feels like a car ride across the country in late autumn. We’re driving away. Lyrically, the song tells of ending a relationship and accepting that it is finally over forever. The more standard chord progression supports this feeling of finality; the verses follow a I-vi-V-ii-IV-I-V-IV-I. The second half of each verse having that I-V-IV-I feels very straight-forward rock anthem. The chorus rises up to: V7-IV-V-IV-V-IV-IV7-IV. This repetition of V-IV without returning to the tonic until AFTER the chorus gives a sense of key change while also building up tension for that key resolution. And that return to the tonic is on the word “goodbye”

Kiss me, please kiss me
Kiss me out of desire, baby, not consolation
Oh, you know it makes me so angry cause I know that in time
I’ll only make you cry, this is our last goodbye

Portishead’s “Dummy”

Album cover for Portishead's Dummy

This week, I’ve been listening to Portishead’s debut album “Dummy” from 1994. I remember how excitingly unusual and new this album sounded when I was 17 years old. This combination of goth, hip hop and jazz came from another world; that dark alien digital world was filled with the smoke and fog of human emotion. In this world, Nine Inch Nails were the rock n roll and Portishead were the jazz-soul. This was my and much of the world’s introduction to the trip-hop genre, though I don’t think the name existed yet. While I spent more time listening to Nine Inch Nails, I definitely enjoyed Portishead as well. I seem to have lost touch with most of these songs over time, only really remember a few of them; It was good to spend a week revisiting, even though I didn’t love it as much as I used to.

Sour Times

The second track, “Sour Times,” provides a great example of what Portishead is about. They built the accompaniment around samples of a late 1960s crime-noir jazz piece “Danube Incident” by Lalo Schifrin. Over of this, they have layered organic instruments and synths emphasizing elements of the original score. Beth Gibbons sings about longing for a former lover who has since gotten married to another.

Cause nobody loves me, it’s true
Not like you do

There’s an unusual instrument rises and falls from the back to the front. More percussive than melodic. ; it makes me think of Tibetan prayer wheels, even though they sound nothing like this. It’s quite possibly a cimbalom, which they’ve played in a jangly sinister way. There was something similar in the Schifrin song that sounds more like a plucked violin, or piano strings. It gives the track an non-specific ethnic feel, like some far away culture.

Numb

I love the scratching of Ray Charles’s “I’ve Got a Woman” throughout Portishead’s “Numb.” The track showcases some very good performance and songwriting, but it’s the use of a turntable that pushes the song into something fantastic. They use some traditional hip-hop techniques in a more languid broken-hearted way. The original melody gets chopped up slowly, pitches descend, as the heart gives out. This produces a far-off and lonely atmosphere with an instrument normally used for excitement and energy.

Glory Box

The greatest track on the album is definitely “Glory Box.” It rightly closes out the album, sounding like the end-credits of a sci-fi noir film. Portishead built the backing music mostly from “Ike’s Rap 2” by Isaac Hayes. As with other songs, they add their own instrumentation to emphasize or change elements of the original song.

An unfortunate thing that happens throughout this album becomes most apparent to me in this song: the use of samples locks them into a key and especially with a chord progression. Where this has always bother me is the end of “Glory Box.” There’s a bridge where the character of the song changes, a break-down. Then the song returns back to where it was. Had they been using all original instruments, I suspect they would’ve opted for a key-change at the end.

Give me a reason to love you
Give me a reason to be a woman
I just wanna be a woman