Jeff Buckley’s second album announces itself with the switched-on surge of a guitar amp, followed by power chords and the tender yearning of his voice. As the first new music we’ve heard from Buckley since his 1994 debut album, Grace, it’s a thrilling moment, rife with exhilaration and new beginnings.
It’s also impossibly sad. When he leapt into Memphis’ Wolf River for an impromptu swim in May 1997, Buckley was about to resume recording his second album, My Sweetheart the Drunk. His tragic drowning changed everything. As its title implies, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk collects a portion of what he left behind from that work in progress — tapes from sessions (with producer Tom Verlaine) that neither he nor his label found satisfying, as well as later home demos for songs he was never able to record with his band.
The aborted sessions with Verlaine constitute the first of Sketches’ two discs. While it’s easy to hear why both Buckley and Columbia felt the tracks needed more work, there’s no denying the monolithic power and epochal swirl of ”The Sky Is a Landfill” or the tender-hearted warmth of ”Morning Theft.” Sung in a buttery falsetto, ”Everybody Here Wants You” drips with Memphis soul and unrequited longing. The second disc is a motley brew of remixes, additional studio sessions (the excitable-boy romp ”Haven’t You Heard”), and low-fi solo tapes. Whatever torment Buckley was enduring is evident in the operatic angst of ”Murder Suicide Meteor Slave,” while ”I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby (If We Wanted to Be)” rattles and hums with anguished desire.
As with Grace, Sketches is a testament to Buckley’s role as a lifelong student of rock history. From the glam-rock raunch of the randy ”Your Flesh Is So Nice” to a cover of the country ballad ”Satisfied Mind,” he had the ability to synthesize past and present into an ethereal future. What also unites this assemblage is Buckley’s naked passion. Then as now, his music was a welcome antidote to Lollapalooza-era cheekiness.
With its jarring references to ghosts and rivers, Sketches can be spooky. Given the circumstances of Buckley’s death, the line ”stay with me under these waves tonight” — from a song called ”Nightmares by the Sea,” no less — may be one of the most chilling moments ever captured on record. Fortunately, it’s offset by the adventurousness and life-affirming qualities of Buckley’s music, which is as much a part of his legacy as this incomplete, yet affecting, farewell. A-