American ignorance withheld Jeff Buckley’s first appearance at the Billboard No. 1 position for 11 years after his untimely 1997 death. Through the lens of America’s gross underappreciation for an artist its people almost exclusively know through his cover of Leonard Cohen, a posthumous album comprised mostly of cover songs seems to be a miracle. Yet even through the European perspective which appropriately views Jeff Buckley as a guitar virtuoso and the true voice of a generation, the posthumous album of unreleased Buckley material entitled You and I still seems to be a miracle.
Popular culture has deferred Buckley into the role of the wallflower amongst the greats of 90s rock. Scarcely referred to as a legend for his guitar playing ability, his touch and dexterity on the fretboard rival that of Jimmy Page. His voice, often criticized for its overt emotionalism, covers ground between Nina Simone and Robert Plant. Never had there been a more perfect archetype for music greatness and never had such a talented presence on earth been so brief. Though the years past prevent You and I from having the same satiating effect that Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk had the year following Buckley’s death, You and I revives an early image of the young and burgeoning talent by revisiting his artistic self-discovery.
Buckley’s haunting aura is immediately felt in the negative space surrounding Buckley’s guitar trills on the opening Bob Dylan cover “Just Like a Woman.” His guitar playing is simultaneously inviting and distant, sparse but flawless. His gentle strumming yields the foreground to his voice until stingingly precise guitar solos command attention. His singing balances grit and levity while delivering Dylan’s lyrics, sounding tenderly affectionate at times and then seductively crass at others.
His cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” builds upon a street busker aesthetic that is reminiscent of his live performances at Sin-é. The young Buckley’s voice reveals his eagerness for the spotlight, singing “Sometimes I’m right / Others I’m wrong” with a humble softness that allows his vocal projection to explode at the chorus. He whittles the song down to a light conga introduction, percussively strummed guitars, and quivering vocals, making a very wholesome performance out of a song that most would consider disastrously empty without the accompaniment of bass and horns.
Buckley is his best on You and I’s most balladic moments. His cover of Jevetta Steele’s “Calling You” is bone-shavingly harrowing. When considered alongside his supremely confident performance of “Everyday People,” the Jevetta Steele cover legitimizes Buckley’s ease in navigating the soul/R&B genre from its most euphoric peaks to its most lonesome plateaus. He demonstrates that same variability across genres as well, expanding his range with blues standard covers of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Cryin’” and “Poor Boy Long Way from Home.”
You and I challenges both Grace and Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk as Buckley’s most intimate studio release. His elaboration upon the dream which inspired the album’s title track adds a conversational quality to a deeply personal connection with listeners built throughout the album. The hold that Buckley’s performances takes on listeners is so compelling that we mourn the album’s close in almost the same way we mourn his death; we find it immensely difficult to let go of him. His acoustic rendition of The Smith’s “I Know It’s Over” ominously sings of life coming to a close; his air is angelic as he sings “I can feel the soil falling over my head.” The greatest credit that can be afforded to him for this performance is how he congests the emptiness left around Morrissey’s original vocals. The song carries much more fluidly than the original without sacrificing Morrissey’s desperate tone; rather, enhancing the lyrics’ desperation with heightened emotion and rawness.
Those who cherish Jeff Buckley’s work tend to elevate his legacy to a mythological stature, to the point where the organic qualities of his artistry seem to evaporate. No other Jeff Buckley album takes on a greater mythological ambience, yet You and I features some of his most unembellished and candid work. You and I presents the fragile sounds of an impassioned artist prior to fame and the mythos which followed. It is a cuttingly reductive experience, unpretentious, emotionally stirring, and powerfully evocative.