Jeff Buckley’s career was on an uptick when he tragically drowned in Memphis in 1997, but he hadn’t yet garnered mainstream admiration in the U.S. – that came posthumously.Much of the early critical acclaim for his debut album, “Grace,” had come from overseas, like in Australia, where it charted at No. 9, and in the United Kingdom, where the magazine Mojo ranked it the year’s best album, but after his death he gained notoriety at home.
His latest album, “You and I,” which was released March 11, is a collection of mostly covers that plants the listener in studio with a solo, stripped-down Buckley, where his talents shine.
The popularity of Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in 1994 brought a spotlight to his music, and it’s that same hauntingly beautiful tenor that carries his newest collection.
Buckley bares his musical soul with a tense energy, reminiscent of acoustic Neil Young, adorned with showy embellishments.
Buckley is a vocal contortionist during Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” where an elongated, improvised falsetto traverses the lyrics, and his pension for bending and stretching lyrics can also be heard on Led Zeppelin’s “Night Flight,” when Buckley performs some of his finest guitar work.
Here, he springs from a chorus of “yeahs” into a rousing vibrato toward the end of his five-minute rendition. When his throat cracks, he shouts, “ugh,” with force and immediacy, like James Brown on the first beat of a measure. Buckley was enamored with jazz greats, and his latest offering includes covers of “Don’t let the Sun Catch You Cryin,” originally performed by Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, and Sly Stone’s “Everyday People.”
The record also features his rock original “Grace,” and his amp buzzes like cicadas before he sings, “So easy to go/ but it goes so slow.”
His prowess extends to slide guitar on the blues traditional “Poor Boy Long Way From Home.” It’s possible the megaphone sound of his voice on this outlier is because of a production technique, but more likely than not, Buckley warped his voice, in the same way he tailored, reformed and re-imagined this diverse grouping – with an adherence to the past, yet keeping with a preponderance toward the musical ingenuity that makes him such an interesting study.
Throughout “You and I,” Buckley has soul, but it feels more like he is possessed.