It’s unavoidable, and justifiable, that every review of sketches for; My Sweetheart the Drunk will critique the record relative to the death of Jeff Buckley. Perhaps the music itself should have transcended that treatment, but it’s hard to be artistically objective about yet another post-mortem double CD set.
Jeff Buckley was one of the most talented singer/songwriters of his generation. And while the phrase “singer/songwriter” often conjures up thoughts of one man, ultra-serious, acoustic guitar and self-empathy on a stool, Buckley’s singular vision often sounded like the organic result of collective thinking. With the most striking feminine male voice since Roy Orbison (but with much more flamboyance), Buckley rivaled Björk as the best singer of our time.
If sketches for; My Sweetheart the Drunk was officially the new Jeff Buckley record, you’d probably hear about how the album contains filler. There’s overdriven 4-track cassette recordings such as “Murder Suicide Meteor Slave,” which most likely would have been nixed by Columbia before the record was pressed. There are songs obviously meant for B-sides, moments of stoned genius (the Genesis cover “Back in N.Y.C.”) that find Buckley running his voice beautifully, sometimes tastelessly, wide open, as well as other experiments that we never would have had the chance to hear had not he died. These pieces give us an insight into Buckley’s attitude toward his music. The scraps show that, despite a penchant for pretense and shallow, lovelorn lyrics (always overshadowed by his delivery), he had a great spirit of musical adventure and a sense of humor.
But it’s not an official Jeff Buckley record, he had nothing to do with putting together this collection. Buckley’s mother and his former bandmates made every decision regarding the record, and within the limited liner notes, they remind us several times that they really had no idea what Jeff would have wanted, and that the songs on the record are in “the very beginning stages of creation.” The first disc is the main course of the record, consisting of professionally recorded demos for his sophomore release. Those slickly crafted demos, without improvement, in a ten to twelve song format, would have been a concise, succinct, and classic record.
Unlike his near-perfect debut album, Grace, which was 90 percent love songs, My Sweetheart finds Buckley diversifying lyrically. The lead track, “The Sky is a Landfill,” shows Buckley’s modern rock side ala Shudder to Think, complete with mathematical structure and a dada lyrical flow. The second track off the first disc, “Everybody Here Wants You,” slides in like Sade or deep Al Green; some of the best and most authentic soul music in years. Other songs have an ’80s feel reminiscent of Joy Division or the Smiths (take that however you want). The better songs on My Sweetheart are born of new approaches for the singer. While most of the songs on Grace were obviously written by Buckley, by himself on an acoustic guitar, the newer songs are more reliant upon his permanent band. A few numbers consist of only ambiance and vox, a definite nod to one of Buckley’s major influences, Nina Simone.
There are detriments to the memorial aspect of the record. The patchwork of styles within the double CD may impede the growth of his fan base, which is more of a shame for music lovers than for the wealth of his estate or record company. Fans of Grace’s commercial, George Michael with talent to spare aspects will most likely instinctively turn their noses up at the hearty portion of lo-fi on My Sweetheart. Plus, there’s some straight up garbage within the 20 songs, the album cover is boring and generic; a lot of things that make you wonder how he would have felt about the record. While he may have been happy with the chance to put out some of his more experimental and self-representational music, which Columbia may not have OK’d while Buckley was alive, the double CD contains things he may have wanted to tape over. Buckley’s mother and former bandmates could have been a bit more discerning. However, the record is (as qualified by his mother and former bandmates) a memorial, an opening up of Buckley’s musical sketchbook, and the subjectivity of his love ones, and the desires of his diehard fans rule over artistic intent. If you’re a fan, buy the record. Sketches for; My Sweetheart the Drunk, contains some of Buckley’s absolute best singing and songwriting. To the fans, the flaws will be endearing. The uninitiated most likely won’t make it through the second CD without fairly open minds. But within the excess, in which many of us will revel, there’s a perfect record and a perfect tribute.