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Die Young or Grow Old

[whitespace] Jeff Buckley
David Gahr

Jeff Buckley's posthumous album hints at what we lost; the Smashing Pumpkins' 'Adore' proves that they aren't worth finding again

By Gina Arnold

I FIRST SAW Jeff Buckley in New York. It was September 1994, and Buckley (along with Hole) was the toast of the CMJ music convention, thanks to a reputation as one of downtown New York jazz and cafe society's shining lights and his status as the son of deceased folkie Tim Buckley--and because of his just-released album, Grace.

The showcase was in some uptown club; Buckley played seated, and the place was so packed you couldn't get near the stage. I only saw the top of his head and was convinced, for a short while, that he was a midget.

It did not escape my notice, however, that Buckley was golden that night. Besides being well related and incredibly talented, he was (I was told by those who got nearer the stage) absolutely gorgeous. It seemed like a lot of good fortune for fate to pile onto one person, and apparently, it was: three years later, Buckley drowned in a freak accident on the Mississippi River while recording tracks for a record that was to be called My Sweetheart the Drunk. He was 30.

The new album, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk (Sony Music) contains some of sessions that Buckley was busy working on before he died, and though it has its moments, it is not, somehow, the album one would have hoped for from this rising star. An untimely death usually gives a musician an unholy spurt of popularity--artists like Jim Croce and Sublime have all perversely benefited from the phenomenon. But such acclaim is short-lived at best, and Buckley's record in particular isn't necessarily going to gain from the romantic tale of its maker's life, because so much of his appeal depended on his presence and aura.

THIS ISN'T TO SAY that he wasn't a great talent. Buckley had a lovely falsetto voice, a great guitar style and a poetic way with words. He was also a creative and forward-thinking artist who, at the height of grunge, was much more interested in musicianship and originality than in angst and stardom.

Good as he was, however, Buckley was not particularly commercial or singles-oriented. Also, there's something ultimately disturbing about hearing unfinished work, and Sketches emphasizes this sense of unease by being a two-record set, thus including more songs than he might have wanted us to hear.

Certainly "Haven't You Heard" and "Your Flesh Is So Nice" are throwaway tracks, and the two versions of "Nightmares by the Sea" are virtually identical. "Murder Suicide Meteor Slave" has possibilities, but almost the entire second CD is a mess. There are a few tracks--like "Everybody Here Wants You"--that have beautiful moments, but stylistically, the record is all over the map.

Sketches isn't worthless by any means, but it's suffused with sadness--haunted, and not in a good way. On the inside, there's a note in Buckley's handwriting that reads, "When all of this music sounds like you know what you want to say, then it will have been of all worth, ever." But Sketches doesn't sound quite like what Buckley wanted to say--anymore than that tossed off sentence does. The whole thing is a reminder of the way that mortality can cheat a person of his true voice--and that's not a pleasant reminder.

BUCKLEY WAS ONE of the '90s' more promising artists, but in the end, that promise never quite blossomed. The Smashing Pumpkins, the band that dominated the alt-rock scene during the same era, are the exact opposite of Buckley. This Chicago-based act has taken a small amount of talent and a certain rigid sonic ethos and utterly maximized their possibilities.

Indeed, the Pumpkins have released no fewer than six records in the form of two single CDs and two double-CD sets--Siamese Dream, Pisces Iscariot, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Aeroplane Flies High--in the course of three years (1993-96). The band's newest is Adore (EMD/Virgin), and there's absolutely nothing to be said about it that hasn't been said about the Pumpkins before.

The band fired its drummer, Jimmy Chamberlin, after the drug-related death of keyboardist Jonathon Melvoin; Adore uses a drum machine and various session players instead. Sonically, however, it's the same-old, same-old: singer Billy Corgan and his two remaining colleagues--James Iha and D'arcy Wretzky-Brown--simply aren't flexible enough thinkers or musicians to sound like anything other than what they are, a vaguely goth-influenced hard-rock band with a penchant for melodramatic ballads.

Adore may have maxed out audience patience with the Pumpkins' hard-yet-whiny sound as well. For a while, you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing them, but the fact that, rather than launch their own promotional tour, the band is going out with the H.O.R.D.E. tour (except for a benefit concert June 30 in San Francisco) shows that Corgan himself doubts his power in the youth marketplace. Adore may manage to eke out one last hit for the band, but after this, the downhill slide begins.

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From the July 2-8, 1998 issue of Metro.

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