Jeff Buckley had the kind of voice that could save a life. Armed often with just a guitar and a set of beautiful, angelic vocal chords, he could inhabit and improve upon other artists’ songs like nobody else. From Dylan to Van Morrison to Nina Simone, Buckley would strum his strings and stretch out his favorite compositions, turning tracks like “Sweet Thing” into a long meditation on the phrase, “We will walk and talk in gardens all misty wet with rain,” moving his voice up and down its register and scatting with breathless emotion, seemingly losing himself completely in the music and becoming not a performer but an artistic presence, someone who doesn’t just entertain you but stops you in your tracks and invades your psyche. He commands total attention and awe with what feel like the simplest of actions, reaffirming just why we care about music.
“Hallelujah” is, of course, Buckley’s most famous recording, but personally, I’ll never forget the first time I heard him cover Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman.” While Dylan’s original is dripping with sexist sarcasm, one of many songs of his that serve as unbelievably coarse five-minute-long insults, Buckley turns it into a crushing lament — not a self-righteous rant like Dylan but more of a sad-if-hurtful, quietly lashing out meditation on why he and his partner should end it. Right at the song’s climax (“Ain’t it clear that I just can’t fit / I believe it’s time for us to quit”), Buckley stretches out that first crying “I” like he’s jumping out of an airplane, somehow releasing his parachute just in time, setting himself up for a perfect landing, those stabbing last words. It just might be the most gut-wrenching break-up song of all time.
Buckley’s “Just Like a Woman” has been available live for some time on what’s called the “Legacy Edition” of his EP Live at Sin-é (for my money the one absolutely essential Buckley album, more so than Grace). But as a studio recording it’s finally getting an official release on what’s going to be called You and I, an early demos record coming out next year.
I really think that everybody who wants to should be able to discover Buckley’s “lost” recordings, the ones that I personally just love so much, but I really can’t help feeling uneasy about this new album. It’s coming right on the heels of Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings, a newly released album credited to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Since he committed suicide in 1994, Cobain’s memory has endured the ignominies of his private journals being published for mass consumption, his home movies being scrutinized in documentaries and endless books speculating about his personal life. We’ve already seen the vast catalog of unreleased Nirvana tracks come out of the vaults on the With the Lights Out box set, and this “new” collection of Cobain’s home recordings feels pointless and exploitative, one more cash-in on a dead man’s legacy.
More and more record labels seem to be clearing out the vaults of old bands with nostalgic appeal, and I worry that this might be coming at the expense of young, up-and-coming artists. This isn’t exactly a brand new phenomenon — The Beatles’ Anthology came out 20 years ago — but more and more artists that have been long bootlegged, like The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan, have spent the later parts of their careers releasing old unreleased recordings, often to commercial success and acclaim. We’re now seeing this trend expand to include bands that don’t have anywhere near the name recognition as these legends. Nineties alt-rockers Pavement are in the middle of a series called The Secret History, pairing old albums with collections of radio sessions and live recordings from the era, as well as songs that weren’t good enough to make the cut the first time around. But since Pavement already has a built-in audience, I suppose a makeshift record like this is easier to sell than a fresh debut album from a young garage-rock band still looking to develop its sound.
Obviously, there are superfans who look forward to buying all these artifacts, and I can’t blame them for that. There’s something that can be sickly fascinating about all the “what ifs” of music history. What if Brian Wilson hadn’t had a mental breakdown and The Beach Boys had pulled off Smile? What if Nick Drake had been famous in his time? What if Biggie and 2Pac hadn’t been shot?
So yeah, I’m going to listen to the new Buckley stuff. Even though the first preview of You and I, a cover of “Everyday People,” is disappointingly bad fit for Buckley’s somewhat funk-less style, you never know what secret greatness the record might hold. As uneasy as I feel about the potential exploitation of artists and the swindling of fans who can’t contain their appetites for more songs from their heroes, rarities and vault-clearing releases can lead to the public discovering some incredible old music and filling in the stories of legendary enigmas. We buy up and listen to boxed sets of full recording sessions, discs of unreleased tracks, because we want to piece together shattered genius. We want to imagine the unknown and solve the puzzle that could show us the greatest album of all time.