Thursday, 15 November 2018

Tim Buckley album by album

(Poetry in progress, a sweat in time, a line left loose....)

Tim Buckley was not commercially successful, and remains largely unknown, but has attracted a cult following, and is widely regarded by critics. This is my attempt to get a grasp of his material by listening to all his main releases, plus a selection of albums released after his death.

Timothy Charles Buckley III (February 14, 1947 – June 29, 1975) was an American singer-songwriter and guitarist. His music and style changed considerably through the years; he began his career based in folk music, but his subsequent albums experimented with jazzpsychedeliafunksoul, the avant-garde and an evolving "voice as instrument" sound. Though he did not find commercial success during his lifetime, Buckley is admired by later generations for his innovation as a musician and vocal ability. He died at the age of 28 from a heroin overdose, leaving behind his sons Taylor and Jeff Buckley, the latter of whom later went on to become a musician as well.

Playing live
One of the great rock vocalists of the 1960s, Tim Buckley drew from folk, psychedelic rock, and progressive jazz to create a considerable body of adventurous work in his brief lifetime. His multi-octave range was capable of not just astonishing power, but great emotional expressiveness, swooping from sorrowful tenderness to anguished wailing. His restless quest for new territory worked against him commercially: By the time his fans had hooked into his latest album, he was onto something else entirely, both live and in the studio. In this sense he recalled artists such as Miles Davis and David Bowie, who were so eager to look forward and change that they confused and even angered listeners who wanted more stylistic consistency. However, his eclecticism has also ensured a durable fascination with his work that has engendered a growing posthumous cult for his music, often with listeners who were too young (or not around) to appreciate his music while he was active.

The albums

Tim Buckley (1966)
Mainstream pop complete with strings and pop production. This is widely classed as folk-rock, but I'm not seeing any folk or rock. Fairly ordinary mid Sixties pop songs. What he has is an attractive voice, but he's not actually doing much with it other than announcing clearly, so he comes across like a Sixties actor doing a pop album with some suggestions of psychedelia in the songs. There's a poetic sense about the lyrics, hints of Leonard Cohen (though without his majesty and true sense of poetry), but nothing quite works - there are no arresting images, memorable turns of phrase, or touching moments, but there is sometimes a pleasing rhyming quality, and a poetic whimsy. But all in all it sounds rather second rate.  I suppose the closest to him is Scott McKenzie, whose most famous song "San Fransciso" was written for him by John Phillips of the Mamas & Papas. Curiously, "San Fransciso" is always classed as pop, yet has more folk and rock elements than Buckley's debut.

His debut album has a rich confidence that is quite impressive. His voice is strong, rich, and solid. The music is mature and solid with an attractive and commercial blend of rock, folk, pop and jazz resulting in a compelling sound that is very much of its time, yet successfully timeless. The songs are mostly acceptable rock based folk-pop songs, though the album opener,  "I Can't See You", is quite arresting, creating the appropriate positive receptive mood for what follows.  I like this. Good musicianship and high production values for a 1966 debut by an unknown artist.

AllMusic: 9
Score: 7

Goodbye and Hello (1967)

For many people (most?) this is Buckley's best album. After initially working through all his albums I tended to agree, though my inclination now is more toward the later material.  I don't find any of the songs here really work for me: the album as a whole is competent and attractive enough, and Buckley has an attractive, warm, and flexible voice, but what holds it back for me is that the songs and the overall sound are at best comparable to what else was happening at the time, such as Incredible String Band,  Tyrannosaurus RexRoy HarperBert JanschPentangleLaura Nyro,  Fred Neil,  Leonard Cohen, etc, but never exceeds those artists, and mostly doesn't quite match them.

There is a feeling that there is an attempt to be interesting and psychedelic - in line with the current trend - but as with some other failed 1967 "psychedelic" albums, such as Their Satanic Majesties Request, there is a lack of authenticity, and a feeling of not quite getting it. The debut was more assured, direct, honest.

Compare Laura Nyro More Than A New Discovery (released 1967, but recorded 1966) and Eli & The Thirteenth Confession (released 1968, but recorded 1967); The Stone Poneys (Linda Ronstadt's first band, includes a cover of a Fred Neil song); David BowieThe 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the OnionOne Nation UndergroundSong Cycle

AllMusic: 9 
Score: 5 

Happy Sad (1969)

This has a Fred Neil sound. I prefer Fred Neil. Better songs, and a more authentic feel. There is the sense here that Buckley was just one step behind other singer-songwriters, and trying out other people's ideas in an effort to catch up.  It sounds a bit second-division. The lyrics lack depth and conviction. There are no arresting images. Nothing meaningful is revealed. They state things we know, lacking imagination and human understanding. Fairly flat.

AllMusic: 9
Score: 4

Blue Afternoon  (Nov 1969)

Pleasant. Sounds like Fred Neil, Joni Mitchell, and the later John Martyn when he incorporated jazz into his folk. I'm quite liking Buckley, though not yet finding anything particularly special or profound in his music or lyrics. Attractive voice, and an attractive jazzy folk-rock sound. This is an album to slip on, turn down the lights, burn some incense, drink some wine, smoke some dope, dream a little, kiss someone in the dark, make love.... It's that sort of gently sensual background music.

AllMusic: 8
Score: 5

Lorca (1970)

The first of two 1970 albums in which Buckley is trying out ideas. This was a fertile time for trying out new ideas in music, and jazz-fusion was one of those ideas. Not all ideas work, and I don't think this does.

AllMusic: 6

Starsailor (Nov 1970)

Quirky. Odd. This'll take a while to ponder.

AdrianDenning: 8 1/2

Greetings From L.A. (1972)

A return to more conventional folk-jazz-pop-rock. Actually quite listenable - it starts with a bit of New Orleans boogie blues that is rather inviting - nothing original or particularly good, but a relief after the two jazz-fusion albums.  Buckley returns to a Fred Neil style vocal delivery which I think probably suits him best, though he lacks the warmth, resonance, and genuine feel of Neil. This is like a blending of the Doors, Fred Neil, Dr John and Van Morrison, and while I find it very likeable (my favourite Buckley album so far) this album doesn't quite match its influences. Though the more I hear it the more I like it.

AllMusic: 8
Score: 6

Sefronia (1973)

Well, after singing in his style for several years, Buckley at last comes out and sings one of Fred Neil's songs - "Dolphins" . It's worth comparing with the sublime original: "Dolphins" - yep, exactly! Stop this infatuation with Tim Buckley right now, and go listen to the true forgotten genius. I listen to Buckley and think, yeah, that's OK. I listen to Neil and I'm grabbed by that exciting ethereal guitar, then by Neil's rich voice, and then I start crying because of the sheer beauty and emotional impact of the song.  Just to make things worse (is he really serious?) he goes and does this cock-arse version of  Tom Waits' "Martha" - again, just listen to the original: "Martha". Is his intention really to reduce such a beautiful, subtle and tender song to such mundane cliches?  This is a bad album. It can't get much worse than this. Can it?


Look At The Fool (1974) 

Buckley trying to be funky.


On the whole I have reasonably enjoyed listening to Buckley. The music is mostly pleasant, though fairly derivative,  lacking in focus, and at times seemingly desperate to find the right voice in a period of rapidly evolving and experimental music styles, and I don't think he's written that special song which grabs attention or excites the imagination/emotions. I don't think he's done anything new or original (he's always a step behind what others are doing). He was a good looking young man with an attractive voice who plausibly, if he had managed to write something decent, would have been a star, but he floundered around trying to find a style that suited him, taking ideas and styles from others (Fred Neil in particular), and never quite broke through in spite of his potential. I find a distinct lack of  authenticity and credibility to be a constant in his work. It's possible that his two jazz-fusion albums were his most serious and committed. Though it's also possible that the first was to complete a contractual obligation, and he thought he'd fool around to see what happened, and then continued with the next, perhaps with a  more serious intent. Or perhaps they were just another failed attempt by Buckley to find something he could do that people liked (either critics or the general public). In keeping with the times I think he wanted to be considered a serious artist, and possibly had a strong desire for that, but lacked the particular talent for either writing great songs, or for playing them with genuine authenticity and commitment. His stuff always sounds like he's trying it out rather than completely believing in it.


*Wilson & Alroys

Dream Letter:
Live in London 1968

Live at the Troubadour 1969 (1994)

Peel Sessions (1991)


* RateYourMusic
* Intro to Buckley in 10 Records
* TimBuckley
* Discogs
* Steve Hoffman
* ProgArchives 
* An appreciation
* TimBuckleyMusic
* TimBuckley.Net

519 March 2019  + 1129

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