14 AUGUST 2004, Page 41

Grace and favour

Marcus Berkmann

yen the most diligent critic can miss 1 something. As the world's least diligent, disinclined to listen to anything I don't already know I'm going to like, I can miss pretty much everything if I put my mind to it, although I often catch up later. One good example is Jeff Buckley, the cultish American singer-songwriter and son of equally cultish American singersongwriter Tim. Cults need little raw material to get going, but Jeffs parentage, palpable angst and pointless early death (by drowning) have fuelled one of the fiercest rock cults of the past few years. It seems likely that his only proper album Grace will soon be universally accepted as an all-time rock classic, when everything else pouring out today has been so long forgotten it might never have existed.

When it first appeared in 1994, I was still getting free albums — happy days — and so probably played it once, recoiled in horror and took it straight to the Record And Tape Exchange, as it then was. But people have talked about Grace ever since, and after Buckley went out for his fateful dip, his record company released countless live albums and DVDs and collections of outtakes, so keen were they to honour the memory of their dead cash cow. And still I had never knowingly heard it. A few weeks ago, when I was loitering in an elderly fashion in one of London's more overpriced CD outlets. I saw Grace at the bargain price of £4,99, and bought it quickly before I had time to change my mind.

Famous albums hitting the bargain bin usually mean only one thing: the record company is about to release a special 10th anniversary edition of the same album with loads of pointless extras at full price. And so it has come to pass. The 'Legacy Edition' of Grace has just been reviewed in the mags, and received the usual drooling raves. It comes with a whole CD of lost drivel and alternate mixes and a DVD with four videos and a documentary. But the original was enough for me. First hearing was the real revelation. Aha. So this is where they got it from. A whole generation of brooding young rock singers who whelp and whoop and allow their voices to make noises you normally associate with surgery without anaesthetic had got it all from Jeff Buckley. Fran Healy of Travis, Matt Bellamy of Muse, little Tom Chaplin of keyboard poshos Keane. and of course Mr Paltrow himself from Coldplay — all have clearly worn out several copies of Grace, and will already have ordered the 'Legacy Edition' from Amazon.

Notice that all of these singers are British. In the US Buckley seems to have had no influence at all, but in the UK all the indie boys have loosened their trousers and started to swoop and soar. It's probably very nice to sing like that, but, like jazz-funk, it's much less fun to listen to. Buckley, like many tortured rock artists over the years, has two modes: very, very quiet and very, very loud. I can see now why everyone raves over his version of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah': it's very, very quiet. It's a beautiful piece of music, although I don't think it's a patch on Laughing Len's original. What Buckley brings to it are a certain delicacy and lashings of misery. This is not a young man who ever made the mistake of being photographed with a wide, cheerful grin.

But it was only while listening to the album for the fourth time, and wishing desperately I was doing something else, that the essence of Buckley's gift occurred to me: he is unintentionally funny. All that emoting, all that whispering, all that screaming, with big loud filthy guitars slapped over everything to make it sound even more serious and important — after a while you can't help but laugh. No one can be that miserable. No one can take themselves that seriously. If he had survived ... well, who knows, but nothing can have been more convenient to his legend than his death. As always in pop music, it's the ultimate career move. In Buckley's case, it has also stilled the giggles, possibly for ever.

So, after four hearings, I think that may be that for a while. Another Cool Record No One Really Listens To? I'm still collecting suggestions at marcus@ berkmannLdernon.co.uk: results in this space in roughly a month's time.