Choosing one specific album is incredibly difficult when looking back at Tim Buckley's spectacular discography. On more than one occasion I've found myself searching for the answer to the great question: What is the best Tim Buckley album? People have asked me this question, and I just can't bring myself to name a specific album. It's a luxury that I will have to deal with, not because I'm unable to pick one, but because I would be wrong in selecting any. It's a photo-finish, only with four albums instead of two horses.
Happy Sad is Buckley's third studio album, after an initial folk-rock beginning with his self-titled album and his most known album, Goodbye and Hello. Happy Sad was written by Buckley, because his song writing partner Larry Beckett had been called up to the military. This was an interesting period in Buckley's life, with a huge emphasis on change. The simplistic and accessible structures of Goodbye and Hello are nowhere to be seen. Jazz became Buckley's forte, and with backing by Lee Underwood's majestic guitar work and David Friedman's vibraphone, Happy Sad became one of just a few unique folk jazz albums. Happy Sad was followed by Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. Buckley's sales figures dropped as a result of the musical shift, but this shift eventually highlighted Buckley as one of music’s great underappreciated artists.
The album opens with "Strange Feelin'", with several minutes of Buckley's new and advanced sound to caress the listener into his extraordinary vocal range. Underwood's electric guitar thunders through on the right side of the track, highlighting the free form composition. It's directly influenced from the Miles Davis instrumental "All Blues" of his magnum opus, Kind of Blue. Buckley's lyrics are divine, working with the jazzy instrumental with Buckley singing in a way that fans hadn’t previously heard him. He sings: "Your daddy's comin' home. He's gonna chase those blues away. And believe me when I say. We're gonna lose that strange feelin'."
Easily the most accessible track on the album is the six minute folk rock thriller "Buzzin Fly", written by Buckley many years prior to the Happy Sad recording sessions. The track is gracefully composed with Underwood's outstretched electric guitar and Buckley's light acoustic guitar. Friedman's vibraphone has a severe effect on the jazz composition as the melody kicks in with Buckley’s ground-breaking and polychromatic vocal. He stretches his diaphragm submissively on the chorus, showing off his four-octave range. The composition is quite impressive with a big well done given to the production behind the ever changing instrumental on the left, right and centre side of the track.
"Love from Room 109 at the Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway)" is essentially two tracks in one. We've seen this segment-like composition in Buckley's work before, on the title track to Goodbye and Hello. There's a noticeable sample of the ocean, which has been overdubbed due to a slight electronic fault with the recording. I'm imagining what this track would sound like without the overdub and it blows my mind thinking about how stark and sufficient this track would be. It's has a five-part construction, which was made by putting together two tracks, "Danang" and "Ashbury Park". There's a sheer sense of dazzling lyricism, with a clear conceptual imagery: "You changed an old man filled with pity. Back to a child again." Although Buckley doesn’t stretch his vocal as far as Buzzin Fly or any other track on Happy Sad, it's still effective. Quiet, loud or even mediocre; Buckley had a vocal power not many musicians have had the honour of possessing.
Written about his ex-wife and child, "Dream Letter" explores the realm of an apologetic concept. Buckley previously wrote and released "I Never Asked to Be Your Mountain" on the album Goodbye and Hello, which was a powerful six minute folk rock track with raw ingredients and soul. Dream Letter is a delicate composition, surrounding Buckley's emotional and eye watering lyrics. The upright bass sticks out phenomenally well on the final hook: "Oh what I'd give to hold him." Speaking of the young Jeff Buckley, he adds: "Does he ask about me?"
The 12 minute composition "Gypsy Women" is regarded as one of the outsider tracks on the album. Avant-garde structures became Buckley's wining method with Lorca and Starsailor, and Gypsy Women is an early indicator of what was to come for the orgasmic Buckley. The vibraphone (which was used in extensively in the previous tracks) is nowhere to be seen. Underwood's clear electric guitar absolutely hits the spot on the left side of the track with Buckley's 12 string acoustic guitar and Carter Collins shredding (if that's possible) on the congas. I can't think of any other 60s folk-based track which utilised the quiet and unprecedented instruments Buckley has used on this particular track; not to mention Buckley's voice as an instrument in itself.
Happy Sad ends on a high. The torturous lyricism Buckley holds has always grasped me. How he relied on partner Beckett for so long is extraordinary considering Buckley's own song writing ability. "Sing a Song for You" is one of my personal favourites and not just one from Buckley's catalogue either. It's the most simplistic track on Happy Sad, and it actually sounds like a track that belongs on Goodbye and Hello, par the vibraphone. The lyrics are stunning: "In my heart is where I long for you. In my smile I search for you" / "In my world the devil dances and dares. To leave my soul just anywhere." Not many tracks are this emotionally evocative. There's something about Buckley's withdrawn vocal and gritty acoustic guitar that destroys something inside me. His passion for music and raw talent makes Buckley one of the best artists of all time.
Lee Underwood sums Buckley up in two words, 'creative evolution'. Happy Sad is Buckley's third album, and it's the first time he turned the page. The pages kept on turning as albums progressed. Even without the knowledge of Buckley's eventful career and transformation as an artist, Happy Sad tells us so much. He's the artist that consistently alienated his audience, whilst expressing himself in a way not many artists would. Avant-garde is a strong word to use when describing music, but it's applicable to Buckley as an artist. There's a clear influence of jazz on Happy Sad, a genre both Buckley and Underwood were listening to at the time of recording. Buckley brought his folk beginnings to the established jazz from artists such as Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles Davis; releasing a sensational album in the process.