Reverse engineering. It happens a lot when discovering music. You pick up one piece only to find it fell out of somewhere else. Son Volt was my introduction to Uncle Tupelo. Briano Eno my introduction to Roxy Music. And in a connection slightly different (well, very different) from those, Jeff Buckley was my introduction to Tim Buckley.
The parallels in father and son’s life are eerie. Meteoric rises to success and tragic, young deaths. But Tim Buckley was dead long before I’d even heard of Jeff (and, sadly, so was Jeff), so approaching his music without precedent is impossible. I would be listening for Jeff in Tim – the dynamic vocal range, especially.
Happy Sad was Buckley’s third album and it was the first to truly expand upon the jazz leanings his music had been channeling from the beginning. It’s evident from track one, the beautiful “Strange Feelin’,” which evokes Miles Davis’ “All Blues” in its opening guitar progression. Even if at first it’s Buckley’s haunting voice that takes over – his quaver is downright mesmerizing at points – the instrumentation is just as vital. The song never leaves the opening theme, letting it morph and mold itself over the course of the seven and a half minutes. At one point it turns into a bluesy vamp, only to come back to earth as a continuation of its opening jazz moments. The modal jazz themes return on the second side’s first song, “Dream Letter.” One of the album’s most beautiful moments, the song is Buckley’s apologetic ode to his ex-wife and first son, Jeff. “Oh, what I wouldn’t give to hold him,” Buckley pines over the song’s closing murmur of vibes and guitar. Paired with the album’s opening track, it makes for a dynamic opening to the album’s second half.
Which brings us to something about this record that isn’t unique for itself nor for its time period, but has become more unique over the years: the number of tracks. There are only six songs on this album. Granted, the whole thing clocks in at just shy of 45 minutes, which answers our question in one way – that was roughly the storage capacity for a 33 1/3 LP. Any more songs and this would’ve become a double album. But anyone who is only putting six songs on an album isn’t exactly someone who’s shooting for the singles chart. Happy Sad is the type of album that has to be absorbed, experienced and re-experienced.
The two long-form songs on the album, “Gypsy Woman” and “Love from Room 109 at the Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway),” despite their 10+ minutes each, are as dissimilar as any other two songs on the album. The former is a slowly building rave that turns into a jam session by half way through its running time. The latter is almost like a classical piece, built in parts that recall the overall jazz and folk themes that collide repeatedly across the album. Suffused with the sound of waves crashing, as a lead-in to the second side’s “Dream Letter,” it’s a stirring painting of a man finding a surprise and unexpected love, only to echo the past loves and their results. At times, especially nearly 40 years after, Buckley’s lyrics can seem rather dated in their phrasing. But considering his voice as simply another instrument, it is a remarkable piece of the puzzle.
The album closes with the short “Sing a Song For You.” A simple, plaintive plea for inner peace, it’s a neat summary to the album’s languishing explorations of love and lost. There are no guarantees if, like me, you come to Tim Buckley by way of his son, that you will like his music. I’ve owned this album for going on seven years and, honestly, I’m just now getting around to absorbing and understanding it. But there are calling cards here – modal jazz, folk stories – that allow space for exploration. Much like its obvious influence, Kind of Blue, it’s a record that rewards repeat, deep listens. – j. neas