When a musician as gifted as Jeff Buckley dies prematurely, an avalanche of posthumous material is to be expected. Especially with an artist like Buckley, who despite having only released one studio album in his short life (1994’s magnificent Grace) recorded a wealth of transcendent, galvanizing material. Harnessing his unusual guitar prowess and, most important, his voice (less the mad-banshee shriek of the oft-compared Robert Plant than a falsetto brother to the searching elasticity of Van Morrison’s wild jazz howl), he redefined words like “passionate” and “catharsis” with his music, not just with Grace but also in the two hours of revelatory solo covers on 2003’s Live at Sin-e, the electric, eclectic full-band sprawl of the Mystery White Boy (2000) and Live a L’Oympia (2001) concert compilations, and the dizzy hum of artistic discovery and growth in 1998’s Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk, a collection of demos and song fragments intended for his never-completed second album.
You wouldn’t know any of that from So Real: Songs from Jeff Buckley, though. An inexplicably mismanaged conduit into the Buckley catalog, So Real carefully avoids labeling itself as a best-of — which is wise, because only seven of the fourteen songs collected here are definitive Buckley. The problem is one of variety. So Real is composed of songs from only three releases: the anemic four-track EP version of Sin-e, the classic Grace (the Legacy Edition double-disc, to be more specific), and the Sketches collection — all major moments in his career, but hardly a snapshot that distills the entirety of Buckley’s expansive musical landscape.
Further, the track list is scattershot at best, with lesser tunes Jackson Pollacked throughout the disc, taking up space where more-landmark songs could have been included: Sin-e‘s awkward adolescent version of “Mojo Pin” shows up instead of the definitive, explosive Grace rendering; the fragmented churn of “Vancouver” inhabits the space where the wistful, shimmering heartbreak of “Morning Theft” should be; the previously available alternate takes of Grace cuts like “So Real” and “Dream Brother” are given time even though the originals were pitch-perfect. Where is the epic wail of the live classic “What Will You Say” or Live at Sin-e‘s seismic climax of Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do,” in which Buckley’s voice reaches its finest recorded moment as it stretches from croon to howl before finally careering into the upper registers of unhinged glossolalia and scatting tongues?
Despite all of this, though, Buckley’s fervor and brilliance — his sound — manages to extend beyond the dendritic reach of such flawed sequencing and poor track selection. Listening to the best of his work — the heavy-lidded Stax heartbeat of “Everybody Here Wants You” and dizzy bass groove and swooning pop crescendos of “Last Goodbye,” the sexual heartache of “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” and the cascading guitar and vocal acrobatics of “Grace,” the slow merry-go-round of memory and melody in “Je N’en Connais Pa La Fin” and the paradoxical warm ember embrace of the cold wisdom of “Hallelujah” — it’s easy to hear that he was one of the most audacious and talented musicians of his generation, well on his way to becoming one of the greats. If only So Real could reflect that. In its own backward way, the defective execution does mirror the Buckley oeuvre in two respects: It is both breathtakingly beautiful and woefully incomplete.