Passion and pathos

Writing about Sketches (For My Sweetheart the Drunk) is to unavoidably reflect upon Jeff Buckley's life, tragic death (he drowned last year wading in the Mississippi River; his body hasn't been found) and his unfinished work-in-progress as epitaph. How, in a record review, does one encompass that death?

Sketches (For My Sweetheart the Drunk) brings together, on two CDs, Buckley's last studio sessions with his band, along with solo, four-track home recordings intended for the album. They were assembled under the guidance of his mother, Mary Guibert. Disc 1 is also an enhanced CD, which features photos, writings from Buckley's journals and extra, stark, demo versions of two tracks from the album.

The 10 songs on the first disc are from three sessions with producer Tom Verlaine and mixed by Andy Wallace. Disc 2 includes alternate versions of the songs "Nightmares by the Sea" and "New Year's Prayer," plus six demos and two covers: Genesis' "Back in New York City" and the traditional "Satisfied Mind."

The set is wildly incomplete, yet full of so much vision, passion, depth and ambivalence that its tracks stand up as an album. Buckley's influences are evident, from the late Qwaali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to T-Rex, Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin and even -- with some resistance -- his late father, the visionary singer and songwriter Tim Buckley. From rock to jazz to soul, from melody to dissonance, from vulnerability and steamy eroticism to violence and chaos, it's all here. These elements push the album to lyrical and compositional heights barely hinted at on Buckley's debut, the universally acclaimed Grace.

"The Sky Is a Landfill," a melodic rocker that gives in to anarchy by its end, opens the set. It alternately whispers and screams for freedom in defiance of a system that Buckley perceives as death. He sings, "Our mutilation is to gain from the system" and "throw off your shame or be a slave to the system." Guitars churn, clang and break out from the tune's structure; Buckley's voice soars as the track falls apart before slipping, exhausted, into a violent silence.

But "Everybody Here Wants You," arguably the best track, finds tranquillity and desire in the best soul music tradition. There's no doubt Marvin Gaye himself would have been proud to sing this. Lush, hypnotic arrangements and understated playing allow Buckley's voice to work its sexy magic. He sings, almost in a whispering croon, "Twenty-nine pearls in your kiss, a singing smile/ Coffee smell and lilac skin, your flame in me É" Then, more earnest and even more slowly, "Even now you're undressed in your dreams with me." In the song, the door is open; the night and sky are full of blessings.

The tenderness remains in "Opened Once." Buckley proclaims that the dream of love is no longer enough; reality is called forth. Soft guitars weave with that gorgeous voice admitting: "Just like a fiction rushing in your riverbed/ Arise like applause in my head/ And in the half-light where we both stand/ This is the half-light, see me as I am."

No track sounds like any other. The only constants are Buckley's voice (which throws itself all over the place, searching for a place to fall) and Michael Tighe's guitar playing ( the perfect foil). Tighe plays not to achieve balance but to exhort Buckley to go farther out on the ledge.

Disc 2 reveals Buckley's struggle and ambition. In the intimate four-track demos, Buckley tries everything and anything to get his lyrics across. He taps the microphone for percussion, slips his fingers over his guitar strings and splits his emotions into many guises, using odd effects and instruments to find a deeper way.

The demos reveal an artist beginning to come to grips with his own powers and realizing in a self-effacing way that he is struggling too hard. He laughs at himself in these songs, relieving the first disc's tension.

This is not to say that these songs are throwaways. They show the poet and composer in the process of reaching to embrace his own heart, pain and incredible joy in creation.

In the end, the loss we experience is total. These songs are evidence of a creativity and good-heartedness. Buckley gives us, in "Morning Theft," his own questions and what we are forced to accept as answers: "What am I to you?/ Some thief who stole from you/ We come together making chance into starlight/ Meet me tomorrow night or any day you want/ I have no right to wonder, just how or when/ You know the meaning fits, there's no relief in this/ I miss my beautiful friend/ I have to send it away to bring her back again." Thom Jurek is a music writer living and working in Ann Arbor. E-mail [email protected]. follows his own loopy

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