Hearing Voices

The vocal wizardry of Bjsrk and Jeff Buckley

With virtuoso guitar work by Gary Lucas on a few cuts, Grace is instrumentally slick, but it doesn't play into any particular marketing niche. Heedless of fashion, it steers clear of grunge bravado and punk disdain for art, embracing less trendy, more pretentious genres: jazzy torch songs ("Lilac Wine"), art-rock epics ("Grace"), even classical compositions. The strangest adaptation has to be an operatic, near a capella rendition of "Corpus Christi Carol," by gay British composer Benjamin Britten. A bold gesture that teeters back and forth between beauty and disaster, it couldn't be less manly, less rock 'n' roll.

On "So Real," Buckley literally gets the spirit: Haunted and ghosty, his swooning falsetto shoots higher and higher into the sky as the song builds to an ecstatic, hysterical climax. Still, his own material is mostly average: It's the covers on Grace that reveal Buckley's immense gifts. His subtle, tender reading of "Lilac Wine" evokes Nina Simone, and a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is sexual and religious. Whereas Cohen croaks lyrics like a cynic, Buckley dances a ballet over a delicate finger-picked melody, making a whole world out of the title word alone, bringing a different meaning to it each time he sings it. When he sustains a single syllable at the song's close, it's a moment of pure loveliness, and a reminder of how a truly great singer can make someone else's material his own.

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