Jeff Buckley?s second album announces itself with the switched-on surge of a guitar amp, followed by power chords and the tender yearning of his voice. As the first new music we?ve heard from Buckley since his ?94 debut “Grace,” it?s a thrilling moment, rife with exhilaration and new beginnings.
It?s also impossibly sad. When he leapt into Memphis? Wolf River for an impromptu swim in May 1997, Buckley was about to resume recording his second album, “My Sweetheart the Drunk.” His drowning changed everything. As its title implies, “Sketches (for My Sweetheart the Drunk)” collects what?s left behind from that work in progress — tapes from sessions (with producer Tom Verlaine) that neither he nor his label found satisfying, as well as home demos for songs he was never able to record.
The sessions with Verlaine constitute the first of “Sketches”‘ two discs. While it?s easy to hear that the tracks needed more work, there?s no denying the monolithic power of “The Sky Is a Landfill” or the tender-hearted warmth of “Morning Theft.” Sung in a buttery falsetto, “Everybody Here Wants You” drips with Memphis soul and unrequited longing. The second disc is a motley brew of remixes, studio sessions, and low-fi solo tapes. Whatever torment Buckley was enduring is evident in the operatic angst of “Murder Suicide Meteor Slave” and the anguished wail of “I Know We Could Be So Happy Baby (If We Wanted to Be).” What unites this assemblage is Buckley?s naked passion: Then as now, his music was a welcome antidote to Lollapalooza-era cheekiness.
With its jarring references to ghosts and rivers, “Sketches” can be spooky. Given his drowning, the line “stay with me under these waves tonight” — from a song called “Nightmares by the Sea,” no less — is chilling. Fortunately, it’s offset by the adventurousness of Buckley’s music, which is as much a part of his legacy as this incomplete, yet affecting, farewell.