They run through this collection like a string of loosely buried land mines, images and aphorisms with the prescient sting of epitaph: "This way of life is so devised/To snuff out the mind that moves" ("The Sky Is a Landfill"); "I am a railroad track abandoned" ("Opened Once"); "I'm not with you/Not of you" ("I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby [If We Wanted to Be]"). But Jeff Buckley's death by drowning, a year ago this month in Memphis, was a tragic accident, and the few finished records that he left behind — the 1993 Live at Sin-é EP, the 1994 album Grace — were about finding a passage through darkness, into light. His lyrics and the convulsive operatic dynamics of his singing were thrilling evocations of long black shadows exploding into daybreak.
A restless, demanding spirit, Buckley had an almost pathological aversion to pop convention; he craved both immaculate perfection and naked revelation in his music. Which may explain Buckley's alleged dissatisfaction with his first stab at recording what was to be his second album, Sketches (For My Sweetheart the Drunk). There is a slight, studio-bound formalism to the '96 and early '97 Sketches tracks, produced by Television guitarist Tom Verlaine. "Vancouver," for all of its medieval-Byrds allure, and the old-school-Prince love letter "Everybody Here Wants You" fall a few yards shy of transcendent.
But there is also explosive garage-rock theater here — the barking vocal rage and twisted-metal guitars in "The Sky Is a Landfill" — and breathtaking change-ups of melody and mood, like "Witches' Rave," a jolt of black-magic power pop, and "Opened Once," with its silken, suspended chords and the shivering enunciation in Buckley's voice. "You and I" is just Buckley singing in free fall, but his prayers and regrets rebound through the cathedral echo with compelling despair. If Buckley felt the Verlaine material was not definitive, work, it was only a near miss.
Crude and inconclusive, the four-track demos on Disc Two, recorded by Buckley alone in Memphis just before his death, reveal little about his revised plans for that second album. "Murder Suicide Meteor Slave" is deafening, nutty, out of tune-splatter-guitar painting, straight from the id. "Your Flesh Is So Nice" sounds like Pavement's idea of Sparks covering Kiss. But the flashes of inspiration are blinding: the demonic, scarredguitar ingenuity of "Back in N.Y.C.," a Genesis (1) cover; the raw fragility of "Jewel Box"; the vulnerability of Buckley's voice amid the tidal guitars in "I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby [If We Wanted to Be]."
Sketches ends with an odd leap back to 1992 and a live-radio reading of Porter Wagoner's 1955 country hit "Satisfied Mind." But Buckley gives a performance of sublime purity and contentment that illuminates the heart and purpose etched deep in the rest of Sketches. This is not the album Buckley intended for release, but it is a record of his best intentions.