Given the dearth of studio material Jeff Buckley was given the chance to bring to fruition in his short lifetime, the excavation of the late singer-songwriter’s work has always felt craven, if well-intentioned. Like the second half of 1998’s Sketches: For My Sweetheart the Drunk, the songs on the latest posthumous Buckley release, You and I, are just that: sketches.
The 10 demos here, mostly covers along with two early versions of original songs, were recorded shortly after the artist was signed to Columbia Records in 1993, all performed solo and ostensibly never intended to be heard by the public. And Buckley’s renditions of three of these songs—Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman,” Led Zeppelin’s “Night Flight,” and Bob Telson’s Academy Award-winning “Calling You”—can be heard on the great Live at Sin-é, so their inclusion feels like padding on an already inessential package.
What’s most surprising about the album, though, is its lack of songs by female artists. In the 1990s, when Gen-X angst was all the rage, Buckley emerged as a crooner of extraordinary emotional sensitivity; his use of falsetto and head voice, and affinity for covering the music of female soul singers, made him a rarity. His brand of jazz-influenced rock wasn’t just timeless, but quite often genderless. You wouldn’t know that from most of the songs on You and I.
The exceptions are the Smiths’s vulnerable “I Know It’s Over,” the lyrics of which are particularly spooky to hear falling from Buckley’s mouth (“Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head/You see, the sea wants to take me”), and “The Dream of You and I,” in which he recounts the dream in which he first heard the melody of what would become Sketches‘s haunting closing track. When Buckley explains that the latter is about the AIDS crisis, at the forefront of public consciousness in the early ‘90s, his use of non-gender-specific pronouns suddenly starts to make sense. Whether it was classic rock or the blues, Buckley’s covers were never simply exercises in imitation, always revealing a part of him, but it’s his original material, too little of which is found here, that truly provides a glimpse into his soul.