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 Grøndahl, 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

Leonard Cohen’s “Songs of Leonard Cohen”

This week, I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen’s debut album “Songs of Leonard Cohen” from 1967. My girlfriend introduced me to Leonard Cohen by giving me a copy of the Phil Spector produced album”Death of a Ladies’ Man.” I slowly grew a deep appreciation for the songs on that album.  The production was like something from a dream; The recordings smelled faintly of liquor and cigarettes.  “Death of a Ladies’ Man” provided a cool, yet haunting, melancholic atmosphere through lyrics, performance and production.

I’ve been looking forward to this week with “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” At first, I was a bit disappointed by the sound. The vocals were too intimately languid and the atmosphere was much different than the Phil Spector produced album. Known as a poet before starting his music career, Cohen writes amazing lyrics. I loved them from first listen and my appreciation for them developed over the week. The music also grew on me as well. The vocals aren’t quite to my taste, but I appreciate that they suit the songs. There’s quite a bit for a songwriting musician to learn form here, especially the lyrics.

“Sisters of Mercy” got my attention first.  The songs of this album are vocal and acoustic guitar based. Any other instrumentation is there to provide support or background. This song features a jangly mixture of instruments in the background that sound like a French street band. This band consists of accordion, glockenspiel, some light percussion. The atmosphere that they provide captured my heart before the lyrics. 

Those lyrics tell a simple story of a passing interaction with two young women whom Cohen had given a place to stay. After some conversation and then seeing them sleep, he was inspired to write “Sisters of Mercy.” According to this tale, he was the person that provided charity to them, not the other way around. However, it seems that they left brightened his evening and left a lasting impression. 

Having bestowed upon them the title of “sisters of mercy,” he continues with references to religious symbolism throughout the song. In the third of the four stanzas, he elevates their conversation to the point of an awakening or spiritual conversion. The confession he mentions in this verse probably refers to the previous verse where he tells of leaving his family and his own soul. He admits to feeling lonely as a sort of punishment for his actions. “When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.” It’s not clear to me if he says this, or the Sisters do. Like Jesus touched the eyes of the blind, they have given him a new perspective on life and he honors them for it.

Well they lay down beside me, I made my confession to them.
They touched both my eyes and I touched the dew on their hem.
If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn
They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.

The track “Suzanne” introduces the sound of the album well. Broken chords gently played on acoustic guitar start the track to be joined by Cohen’s reserved vocals. Even the chord progression is a gentle one: I-ii-I-iii-IV-I-ii-I-ii-I for the verses and iii-IV-I-ii-I for the chorus. The verse chord progression rises during the first half across the ii, iii, and IV, to return to ii in the second half. The steps back to the tonic chord keep the progression gently seated. The melody, too, rises and falls. 

There are three verses, each followed by a chorus. The verse follow a rhyme scheme of AABB for the first four lines and then the next two or three lines rhyme, but not following a consistent pattern. Most of the rhymes are slant. In the final verse, he rhymes “river” with “forever” and then “harbor” with “flowers” for the first two lines. The last three lines end with “morning” which somewhat ties together the rhyme of final two lines “forever” and “mirror.”

One could potentially class the titular Suzanne as a manic pixie dream girl. This woman that’s “half crazy (that’s why you want to be there)” takes the listener on a journey of discovery. She knows where the heroes are, even in the most unexpected places. This perspective on life is her gift. In the second of the three verses, where I believe the second person is shifted to Suzanne, the focus is on Jesus, whom Cohen describes as broken, forsaken. Even “he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” 

Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river
You can hear the boats go by you can spend the night forever
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror