When Jeff Buckley got together with one of Captain Beefheart's former guitarists, Gary Lucas, in early 1991, their collaboration left an indelible mark on Buckley and the music he would subsequently make.
Songs to No One is aptly named, being less an album than a collection of demos and live performances of songs that the pair composed in 1991-1992. They parted ways soon afterward, with Buckley going on to record the splendid Grace and Lucas releasing his own work under the name Gods and Monsters. Their time together is documented thoroughly on Songs to No One.
It's difficult to say anything about Jeff Buckley that hasn't already been said. The backstory is familiar to most. Buckley's untimely death in 1997 left only one complete studio album and an enormous amount of live material, demos and unreleased studio work; with or without authorization, that material has steadily been made available to the public in the years since his passing.
What this album offers is a snapshot of Buckley in what could be called his "formative" years. Before its release, the public had heard very little of his work prior to 1993; we're still in the dark about his musical efforts pre-1991.
A quick glance at the tracklisting reveals nothing altogether atypical of a Buckley release. He is famous and respected for his beautiful cover versions of songs by everybody from Nina Simone to The Smiths, and Songs to No One contains three such covers: "Hymne à L'Amour"(Edith Piaf), "How Long Will It Take" (reggae's Pat Kelly) and "Satisfied Mind" (Joe Hayes and Jack Rhodes). Only "Satisfied Mind" has been previously heard, on 1998's Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. (Apparently it was also played at Buckley's memorial service.) The rest of the songs on the album are all Buckley/Lucas compositions, several of them to surface later on 1994's Grace.
"Satisfied Mind," as heard here, is a lovely performance of the wrenching blues, with Buckley's voice soaring over a quietly reverberating guitar. The instrumentation is less bluesy and raw than the Sketches... version, but that's about the only difference. If anything, this version indicates Buckley's early timidity when it comes to experimentation and long guitar jams.
Beyond general comments about the tracklisting lies the music. We dedicated Buckley fans, who have been happy to get access to nearly any grainy audience bootleg, will hardly be disappointed; recordings such as these, coming from a real studio (or at least mastered) sound like a gift from Buckley himself.
The demos of the songs that would appear on Grace are slightly different from the "finalized" versions, although an inexperienced listener would be hard pressed to hear the difference. To me, it sounds as if Buckley is only just testing the waters. "Mojo Pin" (recorded live at the Knitting Factory in 1992) possesses only a few hints of the passion and hard-hitting exuberance that would distinguish the studio and later live versions. Performing the song as an electric-guitar duet with Lucas, Buckley stays on the safe side, only treading into the no-holds-barred territory for the brief closing moments. As a solo artist and later at the head of a full band, Buckley would prove far more comfortable and therefore splendidly experimental when performing his songs.
Several of the compositions are more heavily influenced by Lucas' guitar-playing style. "Song to No One," "How Long Will It Take" and "She Is Free" are sweet in their own special way and are backed by incredibly bright and melodic guitar lines. Buckley's major debt to his work with Lucas is evidenced by his own guitar playing in later years, which tended to shift between bright Telecaster harmonies and heavily distorted art-noise.
The song "Malign Fiesta/No Soul" is one of Buckley's odd but great punk-rawk outbursts, and an early indication of his remarkable versatility. Who else could go from divinely singing a Purcell aria, "Dido's Lament," to tearing through songs by MC5 and Bad Brains? Buckley could rock out with the best of them, but leave you in tears moments later.
Jeff Buckley was definitely at a turning point during this album. He was ready to embark upon his own career, but still relished the artistic exchange that came with collaborative songwriting. In her liner notes, Buckley's mother, Mary Guibert, describes this album as something of "a historical nature," which is absolutely right. As much as the album can be enjoyed for its musical qualities, Songs to No One is also a document, a piece of the puzzle that is Jeff Buckley. And while the songs clarify some mysteries, they simultaneously create others, leaving us wanting more.