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

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s “Trout Mask Replica”

Album cover for Trout Mask Replica

This week, I’ve been listening to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s double-LP “Trout Mask Replica” from 1969. This album challenges the listener’s sensibilities and understanding of musical conventions. From the start of the first track, “Frownland,” the first-time listener will question the judgement of those who consider this to be one of the greatest albums of all time. My first encounter with this album came from a girlfriend when I was in my early twenties. It was awful and offensive. Either I was an idiot or she was putting one over one me. I gave it a couple more tries and gave up. So here I am, two decades later, devoting time to it because it is a great album. Do I love it now? No, but I do appreciate it and even enjoy parts of it in doses.

The verb “experiment” means to try something for the purpose of discovery. This generally implies doing something in some way different from what one normally does. The outcome is unknown. A question beginning with “What would happen if…” prompts an experiment. Then depending on the outcome, you might alter the act for future experiments. As the outcome becomes less unknown, the act becomes less of an experiment and more of a practice. This album is the result of experiments with breaking the conventions of rock music. Living together in California, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) ruthlessly led his band of musicians like a cult leader. His methods challenged the established rules of rock as well the ethics of management. That’s another topic though.

Dachau Blues

The third track “Dachau Blues” grabbed my interest first. Yes, the song does follow some blues structure, but it’d be a stretch to call it a blues song. Beefheart’s vocals stand out in front, with the band mixed relatively low. The guitars and dry drums create a near chaotic background for the anti-war lyrics. They choose the location of Nazi concentration camp from World War II to tell how frightened children look up to the adults to not repeat the horrors of war.

The song demonstrates little relationship between accompaniment and vocals. Even though the guitars start with a jagged rhythm for the first chorus, they seem to dissolve into apparently improvised melodic riffs. The percussion and guitars fall in and out of rhythm with each other. Then a saxophone screams in competition with the spoken lyrics. There’s a mixture of intention and accident throughout the album. These glimpses into the process remind us of the importance of the process. I’m also reminded of the Beatnik notion that the unedited thought is more pure and loses something through revision. Yet, we know that Captain Beefheart and his magic band practiced and practiced these songs. The loose chaos didn’t come easy.

Pachuco Cadaver

Before the music starts, the Captain shares some nonsensical wisdom: “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?” There’s some underlying logical to the nonsense written by Captain Beefheart, perhaps. He has a great taste for the vocabulary of unusual, using these words to paint a surreal story world. Elements of this world are returned to throughout the album, feeling more like consistency than repetition. The lyrics of “Pachuco Cadaver” present the vignette of an attractive Latina-American woman, like a bizarre version of The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.

“Pachuco Cadaver” stands out on the album as being one of the few songs with a stand-out guitar riff that repeats in different parts of the song. The accompaniment even builds up to it as it evolves out of a primordial groove. At times, it is hinted at, muted, then devolves into arhythmic strumming. Then it appears, nearly rocking, as the Captains says, “her lovin’ makes me so happy…”

When she walks, flowers surround her
Let their nectar come in to the air around her
She loves her love sticks out like stars
Her lovin’ stick out like stars