By Nick Wagstaff
It’s a true testament to Jeff Buckley’s talent that almost 20 years after his passing we’re all hanging out for another eagerly awaited release from the vault. The reason for the anticipation after so many years is easy to pin down; it’s that voice and those chords. That incredible mix of pain, vulnerability, strength, technique and artistry.
Compilation album You & I feels like a visit from an old, mysterious yet familiar friend from the past. You’ve known this friend for a long time and they have a huge impact on your life, but you don’t talk as much as you used to. This old friend suddenly comes out of nowhere and shares something completely new and unexpected with you. This is You & I.
Cast your mind back for a moment to get into the headspace required for this album. The year is 1992 and Jeff Buckley has been in New York for a little while now. He’s gone from playing in rock bands to being a mainstay troubadour at local coffee shops and clubs. Much to the unease of his self-deprecating personality, a scene has formed around Buckley, and with good reason. Columbia Records, in the form of A&R manager Steve Berkowitz, becomes aware of Buckley and are the first to take note of his incredible talent.
The recordings heard on the album stem from a recording session in producer Steve Addabbo’s Shelter Island Sound studio, which took place a year after Buckley was signed to Columbia Records and a year before the legendary Grace was laid to tape.
Steve Berkowitz describes this three-day recording session as a warm up for Buckley to figure out his spiritual voice as a recording artist. It was a “no idea’s a bad idea” session where Buckley was encouraged to record anything he could think to play. From Led Zeppelin to The Smiths, from Sly & the Family Stone to Javetta Steele, it was just Jeff, a mic and a guitar. As Jeff knew how to play a massive catalogue of material, there were many, many covers recorded over those few days. These comprise most of You & I’s run time.
The opening track, a version of ‘Just Like a Woman’ by Bob Dylan, immediately sets the mood for the compilation as Buckley’s voice blends perfectly with his unmistakable guitar chord work on that golden-toned Fender Telecaster. His thin, angelic singing tone crescendos into a rich vibrato that reminds you why you were so eager to hear more from this great artist. He transforms Dylan’s raw folk ballad into a spiritual and complex work that transports you inwards to reflect on every past relationship you’ve ever had.
Showcasing his great depth of influences, the following track, a cover of ‘Everyday People’ by Sly and the Family Stone, is an unexpected turn toward Buckley’s soul roots. Steve Berkowitz reminisced that this was the track that got the timid musician to emerge from his self-conscious bubble. Although it’s hard to imagine a supremely talented performer like Buckley doubting himself, the truth is that he wasn’t used to recording at this stage. ‘Everyday People’ is the track that finally got Buckley in the groove for this session. You can actually hear the stress melting from him as he belts out the chorus. It’s one of the many beautiful and incredibly touching moments on You & I.
Amongst the bountiful smorgasbord of covers on this album, the juiciest easter egg is a track that may be the first version of Buckley’s own song ‘Grace’ ever committed to wax. There will be a lot of different opinions on this version in the years to come, but an undeniable moment of perfection occurs at the climax of the song. Just when Buckley’s voice rasps out and sounds like it’s going to give way, he pulls up into a beautiful vibrato trail-off, reminding us all why he should be considered as one of the greatest artists of our time.
What will really send shivers down your spine however are the raw moments where Buckley talks intimately to Addabbo and Berkowitz, giving you a glimpse into the man himself. In this way, the album really gets under your skin, as all good albums should.
‘Hallelujah’ is widely regarded as one of the greatest covers ever recorded, and yet I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of the songs on this album reach the same lofty heights. As always, Jeff Buckley’s voice is going to move you in ways that no one else’s can. Put most simply, the album is further confirmation of an incredible talent taken before his time. It’s truly something to cherish for casual and hardcore music fans alike.The album is out via Sony on March 11
Read our feature on Jeff Buckley’s rise to prominence here.