On the cusp of Y2K came the final release of original material by the late great Jeff Buckley. Buckley’s death is one of remorse for all that could have been for this gifted talent. How is it that we only have one official album from Buckley and he is still considered one of the most influential artists of the ’90s? Take your pick of any successful band or singer/songwriter active today and they will most likely say that Jeff Buckley influenced their life. Chris Martin, Fran Haley of Travis and even Bernard Butler said that after leaving Suede, “No-one else has come along who made me feel that natural and unafraid of being myself. . . He made me smile… and encapsulated a lot of things that I’d been longing for, achieving a kind of spirituality in music without it being frowned upon. He stripped away a lot of myths for me about what you should be.” Yes, Jeff inspired countless others including well-known rock heroes like Jimmy Page and Elvis Costello, and even Bono dubbed him, “a pure drop in an ocean of noise.”
At least he left us with one final collection of songs. Sketches, was just that, a plethora of unfinished songs that were blueprints for the planned future album My Sweetheart The Drunk. This is one thing about Buckley that I never really understood. He constantly doubted himself and his gifts. He could never decide on a certain song or performance. He seemed unsure of next musical path. This is why artists like Ryan Adams should get more respect. At least Ryan releases his sonic experiments as lyrical documents for a moment of time in his life. You record and release these songs and move on. Sometimes you may miss, but their sonic reflections of times you’ll be able to remember.
The worst thing I could say about Buckley was that he second-guessed himself way too often and it hurt his official creative output. Legend has it that these Sketches were never going to be heard. Buckley wanted his band and former Grace Producer Andy Wallace to gather in his new home in Memphis to ceremonially torch these recordings Jeff made with former Television founder and producer Tom Verlaine.
I don’t understand this way of thinking—why Jeff? Why would you want to destroy these amazing recordings? As posthumous collections Sketches honors the lyrical gifts that Buckley was blessed with. There are some incredible tracks on these discs. I wonder what frightened Buckley and did the success of Grace haunt him so much that it hindered the next direction of his ever-evolving muse.
Who knows what Jeff was thinking? But what we do know is that the songs on Sketches were some of the most timeless music that Buckley created during his short lifespan as a recording artist. Opening with electric “Sky is a Landfill” where Jeff makes the profound statement regarding his past, “Moving with grace the men despise and women have learned to lose/ throw off your shame or be a slave to the system.” At the time he was writing songs for My Sweetheart the Drunk, Jeff was trying to stay away from the sensitive guy serenading women. Ever since the New York Times first reviewed Live at Sin-é along with Michael Bolton’s album it flashed fearful future marketing meetings at Sony. “Sky is a Landfill” and “Haven’t You Heard,” just like “Eternal Life” from Grace are direct reactions to Buckley’s fear that his label Sony was trying to sell him as a heartthrob balladeer.
This is why I feel like Sketches is Jeff trying to rediscover his true voice. Just listen to the lyrics to the haunted elegance of “New Years Prayer.” Jeff sings “Feel no shame for what you are” like a mantra as if he’s trying to convince himself to follow his creative heart. He wanted to distance himself from Jeff that sung on Grace. This is why Buckley originally chose Television’s Tom Verlaine to helm the sessions. He knew that it would frighten Sony. He wanted to take back control of his legacy. Jeff wanted desperately to try something new. He didn’t want to be a puppet of a major label. Originally he wanted to have the sessions for Drunk a Two Ninas band project instead of Jeff Buckley but Sony balked.
Eventually, he relented and Jeff continued recording. Having moved to Memphis, he wrote a very moving love song, “Everybody Here Wants You” for his paramour Joan Wasser. One of the highlights on disc two is sultry “Jewel Box” as Jeff croons “You left some stars on my belly.” Whether Jeff wanted to admit it or not, he was a romantic at heart. His lyrics and voice reflect this. But he wasn’t so easy to pin down. He was a lover and a fighter and you can hear the dynamic struggle within themselves on my favorite song on Sketches, “Nightmares by The Sea.”
“All young lovers know why
Nightmares blind their mind’s eye
Your rube is young and handsome
So new to your bedroom floor
You know damn well where you’ll go”
He sounds sinister but he’s still trying to seduce you. It’s a rock song with beats that even the luscious will swoon over. Speak of the swooning, “Morning Theft” has to be one of the most beautiful songs that Jeff ever recorded. He has some of the most incredible lines Buckley has ever written. Where do I being? “A heart that beats as both siphon and reservoir” is a highlight but my favorite has to be:
“You’re a woman, I’m a calf
You’re a window, I’m a knife
We come together
Making chance in the starlight”
By the finale it’s difficult to accept the light that was Jeff Buckley has gone out and will never spark again. Thankfully, Buckley’s mother ended Sketches with the song she played at Jeff’s funeral. “Satisfied Mind” is Jeff Buckley. It’s his creed, his ideal and describes the way that he lived, loved and left this earth.
“Money can’t buy back all your youth when you’re old
A friend when you’re lonely, oh peace to your soul
The wealthiest person is a pauper at times
Compared to the man with a satisfied mind”
Jeff Buckley didn’t create music to make money. He wrote and recorded because it gave him meaning. When he sung his soul and spirit soared. These Sketches were reflections of the dichotomy that was Jeff Buckley. He may have never really been satisfied with any take that he recorded; I hope he left this world the way that he soulfully sung this cover version, with a “Satisfied Mind.”