In The Half Light - Sketches For My Sweetheart, The Drunk turns 20
On May 29th, 1997, Jeff Buckley wandered into the Wolf River—a tributary leading to the Mississippi. Fully clothed, wearing cheap, lightweight boots he had purchased at the Wal-Mart in Memphis, the city where he had been living for a number of months at that point, attempting to record four-track demos for his long gestating sophomore release.
On the day in question, the rest of his band were literally on their way down from New York to Memphis to join him as he went swimming out into the water, singing the chorus to a Led Zepplin song, he vanished without a trace; his body washing up nearly a full week later.
Almost a year to the date later, Buckley’s label, Columbia Records, released the first of many posthumously issued albums—Sketches For My Sweetheart, The Drunk is a two-disc set: the first of which is a completed, 10 track album, produced by Tom Verlaine, recorded in sessions from 1996; while the second disc is primarily comprised of Buckley’s unfinished, and unrefined Memphis demo recordings, alongside some alternate mixes of songs from the first disc.
A posthumous release is always difficult, or frustrating, because it’s weighed down by ‘what might have been,’ and in the case of Sketches For My Sweetheart, there is an additional layer of frustration, as you can hear Buckley trying to distance himself from the deliberate and labored over sound of his debut, Grace. The restlessness and dissatisfaction is palpable, even two decades later.
It’s very well detailed in David Browne’s 2000 biography, Dream Brother, which structures the life of both Jeff and his father Tim Buckley, in parallel, alternating chapters, but the original sessions for Sketches were fraught with tension. Buckley was increasingly concerned over his financial obligations to Columbia Records—the label, much to their chagrin, sunk $2.2 million into the making and promotion of Grace.
The label was also growing increasingly concerned about how long a second album was taking, as well as Buckley’s insistence on hiring Tom Verlaine—former frontman of the 1970s proto-punk band Television—as the producer. Columbia wanted hits, and was trying to steer him in the direction of Steve LIllywhite, Brendan O’Brien, or re-teaming him with Andy Wallace, who oversaw the difficult, lengthy sessions for Grace, and was brought in to mix the Verlaine sessions for their release.
Amid the tensions between the label, his bandmates, and Verlaine, Buckley was also becoming protective of his music—he felt the label had burned him once already by glomming on to “Forget Her,” a song recorded early in the sessions for Grace that he opted to leave off the album despite how much it pleased his A&R rep. He felt that the now iconic, slinking “Everybody Here Wants You” wasn’t ‘his own’ yet, and was too conventional. He also insisted that Verlaine hide “Yard of Blonde Girls,” then called “Very Sexy,” from the label when they sent his A&R to check in.
Columbia wanted an artist like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen—someone with longevity and commercial appeal; Buckley was a precocious, and at times volatile, personality who enjoyed recording on someone else’s dime, but didn’t want to conform to what the label wanted him to do, or be.
The first disc of Sketches does its best to harness the visceral cacophony of Buckley’s live show, while still making room for the occasional fragile moment. At ten songs, it’s an uneven ten, and I’ve always felt that, somewhere, between the 20 tracks of both discs (plus the additional two on international versions of the record), there’s one really solid album buried in there.
If any song tries to destroy the sound Buckley labored over on Grace, it’s the angry, opening stomp “Sky is A Landfill”—heavy as shit, the distorted, crunchy guitars do their best to mimic the tone Buckley and his band played with during their seemingly endless touring between 1994 and 1996. It’s a hell of an opening track, not exactly the kind of thing that would make a major label happy, complete with apocalyptic, dark imagery like “you like to dance to the rolling head of the adulterous,” and “I’ve got a mail-bomb for you Mr. Strongarm.” Sonically, it’s reminiscent of songs Buckely had been playing live, but never properly committed to tape, like “I Woke Up in A Strange Place,” or “What Would You Say?,” both of which appear on the 2000 Mystery White Boy live LP.
The first three songs of that first disc are actually pretty untouchable—“Landfill” slides right into the slow jam groove of “Everybody Here Wants You,” a song that, given its pacing and vibe, is pretty uncharacteristic of Buckley, which is maybe what makes it so memorable, and why it was chosen as a single to promote the record, though it really isn’t an accurate representation of the nine songs it accompanies. The same can be said for the tender, ethereal “Opened Once,” which Buckley recorded on his own with the assistance of Verlaine; it finds him tapping into that low light, hushed atmosphere he so displayed with his cover of “Hallelujah.”
Sketches doesn’t so much fall apart after those first three songs, but tonally, it really shifts into a much harder edge with the driving rhythm of “Nightmares by The Sea,” the grandiose, grunge tinge of “Yard of Blonde Girls,” and for the most part, continues into “Witches’ Rave.” None of these are bad songs, per se, but they aren’t great, and have almost always been easy for me to skip over when listening.
One could never call Jeff Buckley experimental, though he did dabble in some minor experimentation at times; you can hear that in the four track recordings on the second disc, and the effects and loops he created. On the first disc, “New Year’s Prayer” is surprisingly experimental, or at least, ‘different,’ in comparison to the other songs on the record. Barely a song itself, it is structured around repetition, both in the percussive clacking rhythm that never changes, and Buckley just singing ambiguous phrasing over the top of that.
As the Verlaine produced disc heads into its conclusion, “Morning Theft” is one of the album’s finest. Reserved and heartfelt, it is rumored that the song is about his relationship with the former frontwoman of the Cocteau Twins, Elizabeth Frasier; she, in turn, would write the lyrics to Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” about him on May 29th, 1997.
One thing that Browne’s book Dream Brother points out is that Buckley was a bit of a lothario who drifted in and out of the arms of a number of women; at the time of his death, he was involved with Joan Wasser, the violin player in The Dambuilders, now performing difficult pop music under the name Joan As Policewoman—it’s said that “Everybody Here Wants You” was written for her.
The quick tempo of “Vancouver” brings the album to its somber, haunted closing track, “You & I.” “Vancouver” is not one of Sketches’ best songs, but when comparing the ‘rockier’ numbers, it outshines the harder hitting tracks from the first half—also, there’s this really captivating moment where Buckley multi-tracks his voice for some wordless singing between verses, the sound of which, for some reason, really sticks with you.
By no means sprawling, “You & I” is the longest track on the record—minimal, ambient instrumentation accompanies Buckley as he taps into that otherworldly howl of his, belting out a string of fragmented imagery.
Nobody should have been surprised by how frustrating and uneven of a listen Sketches For My Sweetheart, The Drunk turned out to be—while Grace is an album that’s spent the last 20+ years being lauded, it’s maddeningly uneven in quality and pacing, suffering from bloated overproduction and a second half that gets weight down by too many turgid ballads.
The second disc of Sketches opens with alternate mixes of “Nightmares By The Sea” and “New Year’s Prayer.” Mixed by Verlaine himself, it shows the stripped down quality to the album that he had originally envisioned—something that Buckley came to realize wasn’t the right fit after the sessions concluded. Neither track has the additional layers of depth that the Andy Wallace mixes provided.
The rest of the second disc is truly hit or miss—the ominous chugging and distorted snarls of “I Know We Could Be So Happy” have always been a standout since the first time I hear it—I can’t say the same thing about many of the others. The liner notes for the album, partially penned by Buckley’s mother, stress that these are ‘sketches,’ but the dissonance make them a little unnerving at times, and things like his cover/reinterpretation of Genesis’ “Back in N.Y.C.” come off as four track experiments that were recorded out of the sheer boredom that came from living in a house in Memphis by himself.
In the end, Sketches was not Buckley’s final word—though he did not have a vault of unreleased material sitting somewhere, Columbia has reaped the financial success of his slow growing cult following and the mythology surrounding his music. Grace was reissued and expanded upon a decade after its original release, complete with the inclusion of “Forget Her.” The label has also issued something called Grace Around The World, a CD and DVD combo that assembles live performances of each song from the Grace LP, along with a number of other live albums and EPs, and a collection very old demos, released in 2016, entitled You and I.
On the copyright page of the booklet that comes with Sketches For My Sweetheart, The Drunk, there’s a page from one of Buckley’s notebooks included in the layout—“I don’t write my music for Sony,” it states. “I write it for the people who are screaming down the road crying to a full-blast stereo. There is also music I’ll make that will never-ever-ever be for sale. This is my music alone, this is my true home; from which all things are born and from which all my life will spring untainted and unworried, fully of my own body.”
The irony of something so earnest like this being included with the legalese and fine print that comes with every record is almost too much for me.
Sketches For My Sweetheart, The Drunk is obviously not the album Buckley would have released had he not drowned—but no posthumously released and partially unfinished piece of art is what the artist would have wanted to share with the world. This is the album we got though—rough, perplexing, at times brilliant, and at times a challenge, it’s representative of Buckley himself—difficult, mercurial, and somehow, incredibly charming.