A "greatest hits" album for an artist who had only one full record released in his lifetime? It screams "cash cow," doesn't it?
Well, Jeff Buckley doesn't exactly fit the established patterns. His life came to an end at age 30 when he drowned in Memphis, Tennessee, ten years ago now. But his one full album, 1994's Grace, left the kind of hugely devoted fan base many artists don't get after an entire career of records. And if anything, Buckley's legend has continued to grow ever stronger in the years since he died, to the point now where's he's far more popular dead than alive.
Hence the new compilation, So Real: Songs From Jeff Buckley, a collection which has the unenviable task of summing up an extremely short career without appearing overly redundant. To some, So Real might seem an attempt to gouge more money out of the fans, a la the never-ending flow of posthumous Tupac releases. There's definitely some outrage from fans who see this release as unwarranted ("Let the poor man rest in peace," one fan writes in an Amazon review).
Most of Grace is here, eight of the ten songs from that album in total appearing here in some form. However, there's only four tracks lifted directly from the album itself, then two more "alternate" versions from the double-disc Grace: Legacy Edition set and in live versions. There's also the rock blues of "Forget Her," a B-side that soars with power, or a rare Japanese acoustic concert take on "So Real." Three selections come from the posthumous second album, Sketches For My Sweetheart, the Drunk, including the beautifully sultry "Everybody Here Wants You." A particularly sweet "unheard" track on here is his lyrical cover of The Smiths' "I Know It's Over." And of course there's what probably is Buckley's best-known song, his cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," which has appeared on a slew of movie and TV show soundtracks.
What was Buckley's appeal? Why does his music hit such an unmistakable chord with so many? That "doomed romantic" vibe ripples out from every photograph – the kind of guy girls like to swoon over, a pin-up handsome face but with an artist's soul. But looks alone wouldn't explain Buckley's posthumous canonization if it weren't for the rich talent bursting forth in Grace.
There's a true passion to Buckley's work that is almost unbearable, it's so strong. I'm not talking the warmed-over melodrama of a Mariah Carey, but extraordinarily fluid, flexible singing that truly feels ripped up from the gut, cascading and flowing in ecstatic directions. If anything, at its core Buckley's work hearkens back for me less to a rock 'n' roll heritage than it echoes the devotional faith-filled tunes of artists like the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. But he wasn't just about mournful ballads – the "road version" of "Eternal Life" here rocks with a full-throated bluster. Buckley's undying allure lies in a voice that's as wide as the sky but intimate as a whisper.
Again, was So Real really necessary? Despite the couple of curio rare tracks included here, I don't feel it's so much aimed at the die-hard fanatics, the one who can recite Jeff's entire life story by rote and probably already had these songs anyway. The near-perfect Grace remains Buckley's biggest calling card. But for those who are gently interested in this Buckley fella they've heard so much about, So Real is a more than adequate sampler of yet another fine musical talent who left this world a little too soon.