Occupying a dark netherworld between unfinished album and recordings of posthumous legacy, Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk tells the musical story of Jeff Buckley’s final year.
In 1994 Buckley’s debut album Grace was welcomed into the world with critical acclaim. Sadly, what many hailed as the talented artist’s arrival would be too quickly followed by his tragic departure. Jeff was always at pains to distance himself musically from the influence of estranged father Tim Buckley, who had died of a heroin overdose aged 28. Yet it was from Tim that he inherited his multi-octave falsetto, expressive song-craft and restless drive to explore his musical inspirations.
Perhaps some of Buckley’s pull came from not only his raw musical talents but also his ability to merge classic singer-songwriter sensibilities with the inspirations of those who sat on the fringes of popular music. Jeff charted his own musical trajectory, drawing on a wide-ranging field of interest; but it was artists like Nina Simone, Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn and Patti Smith who captured his imagination and still stand as his most striking influences.
Anticipating the herald of rock-revival acts like The Strokes in the 2000s, Buckley was also enamoured with the CBGB’s scene of ‘70s New York. While working with Patti Smith on her 1996 album Gone Again, Jeff had come into contact with Tom Verlaine. Verlaine was best known for his work in Television, another iconic albeit tumultuous CBGB’s influence. Buckley and Verlaine’s formative meetings paved the way for a project later titled My Sweetheart The Drunk.
Coming off of a whirlwind year of touring, Buckley was expected to return to the studio in 1996. His label Columbia desired a glossy and slickly produced follow-up to Grace. Both a deeply personal artistic statement and burgeoning commercial success, Grace cast a long shadow on Buckley as an artist.
A breakthrough debut is often the result of years of hard work. The follow-up is often expected to eclipse the original or else see the artist relegated to the footnotes of musical history. Buckley could not have known that Grace would paradoxically defy his sparse discography to cement his musical imprint in the decades to come. To allay label concerns, high-profile names like Butch Vig (the man behind Nirvana’s Nevermind) or U2 producer Steve Lillywhite were promptly suggested. Yet Buckley had his own vision. It was stripped-back punk sensibility, which would later emerge with of Flesh is Nice, which he desired.
Tom Verlaine was unfamiliar with Buckley’s music, but regardless took up the unexpected offer to produce. Columbia was naturally furious but laid down enough money to cut four tracks in New York. Despite Verlaine’s temperamental and at times overbearing manner, tracks Morning Theft, Vancouver, You & I and The Sky Is A Landfill came from these sessions.
The most telling takeaway from TheSky Is A Landfill and these other New York tracks is Buckley’s resistance to the notion of himself as a sensitive pop balladeer. Darkly introspective lyrics showcase his anxieties of becoming pigeonholed by industry, media and fans. These sessions left Buckley unsatisfied, the tracks were a far cry from the sound of his gritty vision of the past.
True to the notion of artistic temperament, Buckley was wracked with self-doubt even amidst the global affirmation of his obvious musical gifts. While highly spontaneous, he was often failing to reconcile this creativity with a notorious sense of perfectionism. Another recording session in Manhattan followed in early 1997, but Buckley again left unsatisfied, and the album was not considered finished.
His friendship with Memphis indie outfit The Grifters germinated the idea that the album could be recorded in the idyllic rural setting of Memphis, Tennessee. He retreated to a sparsely furnished cabin in early 1997 and frequented local bars to perform new tracks. Giving recording another try, Verlaine and Buckley’s band joined him in February. The foreboding Nightmares By The Sea, Everybody Here Wants You, New Year’s Prayer and the Nymphs cover Yard of Blonde Girls were hastily recorded in two takes.
Verlaine stayed on to work solo with Buckley on Opened Once, but a distressed Buckley had reached a long-resisted conclusion: he would need another producer to realise his musical vision and so he opted to switch back to Grace producer Andy Wallace. Some legends even suggests that Buckley was planning to gather his new producer and his band in Memphis to exorcise Verlaine’s tracks via ceremonial burning.
During this time Buckley was also continuing his work in isolation. He began using a 4-track recorder and sharing tapes with his band in New York. These recordings form some of his most compelling material. I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby (If We Wanted To Be) and Genesis cover Back In N.Y.C. were captured in isolation, later to be joined by Demon John, Your Flesh Is So Nice and Satisfied Mind. The tracks brim with lo-fi buzz. Another solo addition in Jewel Box shimmers with some of the unsettling ambience of Grace, while also arrives at something electrifyingly new.
Some measure of success must have been recognised in these tracks as Buckley re-summoned his band in May 1997 and members of the group were already en route to Memphis when they heard the news of his death. On May 29, 1997 Buckley died by way of accidental drowning. With the band poised to arrive, Buckley and a roadie took an impromptu swim in Wolf River Harbor, a channel of the Mississippi River that Buckley had frequented during his stay. His body was found several days later.
Surviving his father by two years, Buckley was only 30 years old at his passing. Lyrical references to bodies of water, seas, oceans and many more take on a darker meaning in the wake of his demise. Nightmares By The Sea sucks the listener deeper into dark contrivance with lyrics like “I’ve loved so many times/And I’ve drowned them all/From the coral graves they rise up/When darkness falls.”
When an artist dies their work becomes forever frozen in time. It is for this reason that an early death will often etch the artist more deeply in the fabric of history, long before their musical legacy becomes convoluted or falls subject to the ebbs and flows of creativity or contemporary taste. So came Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, a posthumous album.
The album was released in 1998 at the insistence of Jeff’s mother and sole heir Mary Guibert. The parentheses of ‘Sketches For’ would be added to its working title to reflect its partial completion.The album is laced with remorse, not only for its own unrealised potential but also as a reflection of the turmoil Buckley himself was facing. There was debate as to what could be done with the recordings but Mary Gilbert mooted all ideas, presciently requesting that all of the material be collected rather than divided into the Verlain-Wallace periods.The tracks were left as they were at the time of Buckley’s death with no additional overdubs or mastering.
Peeling back the bombast, there’s plenty of eerily haunting and sinister moments such as the suite of You & I and Nightmares By The Sea. The album closes with the gospel-tinged cover Satisfied Mind, which his mother played at his funeral. This mixture of maternal instinct and musical acumen served as the singer’s musical epitaph, replete with the hauntingly lingering lyrics “The wealthiest person is a pauper at times/Compared to the man with a satisfied mind,” a longing for the peace of mind he so often strove to achieve.
Posthumous releases are always in part a commercial motivation. But they can at the very least provide context or a last gasp of presence. This album does more. It strips back the conventions of commercial music and looks into Buckley’s mind. It’s the journey towards a new direction on the cusp of realisation, but through untimely circumstance deprived. Buckley had a grand arching vision for his second album which this material failed to satisfy.
It’s a product of notorious perfectionism, the death of one concept and the birth of another. It may be a sketch but it is equally a portrait of the artist from whose hand it comes. The raw materials of some unrealised vision, which remains without articulation. Where Buckley burnt away so quickly though, others have taken up his vision. Despite cutting only a single complete album, Jeff Buckley remains remembered as one of the most influential artists of the 1990s.
Buckley had a grand arching vision for his second album which this material failed to satisfy. It is a product of notorious perfectionism, the death of one concept and the birth of another. Its sheer number of creative trajectories are almost impossible to arrange absent their driving creative force, and this album acknowledges this. A sprawling 20 tracks end up making the final cut.
The divergent diversity of Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk might embody uncertainty, but it also delves deeply into the creative side of Buckley’s mind. Whether he could accept it or not, this was an artist on the verge of possibility.