Jeff Buckley - Sketches for (My Sweetheart the Drunk)

NEARLY FIVE YEARS AGO, HE swept into our lives, just one man with one guitar on a gold lamŽ-themed stage in a gobsmacked bar in NYC. Since that live performance in the summer of '93 at New York's New Music Seminar, many lives have been changed by the words, music, emotion and actions of one Jeff Buckley. Not least the man's own, as he somewhat famously drowned just under a year ago.

Still, the music industry has long since proved itself more than capable of uncovering the silver lining beneath the proverbial cloud. Or, in layperson's terms, they've never let a bloody good death get in the way of marketing an artist's oeuvre. And so, a mere fortnight after a handful of Tim Buckley reissues from the '70s are rolled out, here comes 'Sketches...', a two-CD collection of recordings from late-'96 and early-'97 assembled under the guidance of Mary Guibert - mother of Jeff and a 'fleeting acquaintance' of Tim.

In a normal world, this album would have been called 'My Sweetheart, The Drunk' and would have represented the bona fide follow-up to Buckley's one previous longplayer, 'Grace'. Alas, little about Buckley's world appears to have agreed with the normal way of life, and debate still seethes about much of this release - his band members insist that the contents of the first CD, which is comprised of New York recordings with Tom Verlaine, should never see the light of day as Buckley himself had scrapped the sessions long before his demise.

Quite why Buckley felt this way is obviously open to conjecture. Perhaps he felt as though it was too similar in style and texture to 'Grace' and hence caught the singer standing still. In which case, this would be the irony of all ironies, as Buckley quite simply abseiled where others feared to amble: a terrifying blend of the sparklingly wide-eyed and the sighingly world-weary, there are moments during 'Witches Rave' and 'Vancouver' you're left literally slack-jawed at the man's dexterity. Transplant his acrobatic musical suppleness into the human physique and Buckley would have been Olympian. Admittedly, he'd have failed the requisite drugs test, but that's hardly the point.

CD1 is marvellous for several zillion reasons. There's 'The Sky Is A Landfill', with its freefalling guitars and whirling chorus, where Jeff's voice hits the sublime sun-kissed point of a kite gliding over the Kalahari; there's the perfectly grim 'You & I', which is so eerie it must have sounded like a funeral lament before he'd written the second verse; and there's the sweet, sweet soul of 'Everybody Here Wants You', which makes Prince sound like a twat. Points off for 'Yard Of The Blonde Girls', simply because it sounds like Weezer's 'Sweater Song' on Mogadon, otherwise immaculate.

Over in the land of the unfinished masterpiece, CD2 consists of four-track recordings, the last Buckley committed to tape. One could say that this half of the album is slightly less commercial. Alternatively, one could suggest that much of it is fucking horrible. Whatever the weather, 'Your Flesh Is So Nice' possesses all the charm and gravitas of a Billy Childish B-side, and 'Murder Suicide Meteor Slave' is the bastard offspring of 'Scary Monsters And Super Creeps' that Bowie never told his mates about, complete with a guitar-strangling finale that sounds uncannily like a rhino shagging 'The Star-spangled Banner'. Oh yes.

Herewith the creative process stripped almost bare, the singer dressed only in guitar and slobbering fuzz, although banners should be unfurled for the epic-yet-intimate breathiness of 'Demon John' and the quite splendid 'Haven't You Heard', which captures the cartwheeling, caterwauling exuberance of Jeff Buckley as well as anything else here, which is no mean compliment.

One of the really great things about the man, however, is the fact that his spirituality, his enthusiasm for experimentation, his interviews and, of course, his lyrics have negated any need for posthumous ponderings vis-'-vis the wherefores and where-art-thous surrounding his ultimate pop off this very mortal coil. Still, it is worth pointing out that on the first couple of spins of 'Sketches...' if you didn't know any better you'd think the man was obsessed with haddock, such are the number of lyrical references to rivers, oceans and all things generally aquatic.

Which is quite possibly why the worryingly Cure-esque 'Nightmare By The Sea' makes two appearances across the CDs. Yup, it's so relevant you have to play it twice. Obvious, crassly pulled lyrical quote masquerading as a punchline? "Stay with me under these waves tonight", encourages Jeff, "Be free for once in your life tonight...". Quite.


Simon Williams