Jeff Buckley sounds like a man who doesn’t yet know what he wants to be, and his uncertainty is the very thing that holds Grace, his debut album, together. It’s a ballsy kind of uncertainty, the kind you find in star high-school athletes who seem to have all the confidence in the world even as they’re straining to meet their own ever-increasing expectations. Buckley, with the help of his potent backing band, ends up pulling off some things no other young singer-songwriter-guitarist in his right mind would even try: Whatever possessed him to record the bleak, beautiful standard “Lilac Wine”? And the bigger question is, how in hell does he make it work?
Buckley’s got huge ears and an even bigger record collection: He jumbles jazz, R&B, blues and rock references with such apparent nonchalance that he can seem like a showoff. His songs are anything but tossed off, and sometimes his meticulous arrangements sound too orchestrated, too ornate. But it may just be that movement and texture mean so much to Buckley that he sometimes gets carried away. There are worse sins.
Buckley’s curvy, intuitive vocals tell the main story: His inflections flicker with shadows of Billie Holiday and Chet Baker. Other influences are at work, too. Anxious to make his own mark, Buckley doesn’t like to speak much about his father, the late singer/songwriter Tim Buckley. But genes tell a story: The elder Buckley’s 1972 treasure Greetings From L.A. shows that father and son share a fondness for jazzy phrasing and wraith-like falsetto effects.
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The young Buckley’s vocals don’t always stand up: He doesn’t sound battered or desperate enough to carry off Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” But his ghostly “Lilac Wine,” with its deep blush of a sound, practically adds years to his age. His voice seems weighted down with tears that just won’t come out the normal way. “I made wine from the lilac tree, put my heart in its recipe,” he sings, and his heart’s in this recipe, too. Like any singer worth his salt, he knows that “Lilac Wine” just never comes out right without it.