Monday, January 30, 2012

In Defense of...Tim Buckley's Last Song for You

So, quite awhile back I was working on a post of final albums, which you can find here, and on there I talked about Tim Buckley’s last release, the near-universally panned (at least by critics), Look at the Fool.

That got me to thinking about his other much maligned album, Sefronia, and then other albums that are generally cast aside by critics and fans as either subpar or just flat out unworthy. So, I’m starting up a(nother) new series called In Defense of…, where I take another look at the Self Portraits of the musical greats and see if a more objective approach won’t shine a bit of merit on these (allegedly) slandered tracks, or if bad song writing, wrong production, lack of inspiration and/or what have you has just given us a clunker.


By 1973, Tim Buckley’s star was all but faded. Though he had released a series of critically lauded albums (Lorca, Starsailor, etc), they were so far away from the early successes of his folk-troubadour beginnings and meandering jazz follow-ups - and just far out in left field in general - that his initial audience was scared away and the one he picked up as a result, understandably small. Though in no way a return to form, 1972’s Greetings from L.A. was at least a step in a more generally accessible, ear friendly funk-rock direction, though by no means part of the “mainstream” of the times. And while these truly sleazy numbers (I can see Mick Jagger blushing) certainly garnered more critical praise, it still wasn’t the financial sweet spot Buckley (or perhaps his management) was hoping for.

With Sefronia, Buckley moved towards a less raunchy, more slickly produced version of blue-eyed soul. Generally, critics deride this album for being pedestrian and unoriginal. And ok, fine, it’s certainly not as gorgeously epic as Goodbye and Hello, or as mind warpingly out there as Starsailor, but for what it is, which is competent, even inspired white funk and balladry, Sefronia is satisfying on several levels, albeit perhaps superficial ones…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

First off, Buckley’s voice is as strong as ever, and we get a good taste of his vocal prowess, especially on Peanut Man, the Buckley original Honey Man and the ever classic, so how could it be wrong, Dolphins. And yes, there are several covers here, but again, a great song well played is always an inspiration, so who cares if it’s original to the performing artist? Ok, I do sometimes, but Buckley had already proven himself, so if he needed to beef up this album with a handful of covers, so be it…the songs remain the same.

That’s not to say that every song is gold, silver or even rusted tin, as I Know I’d Recognize Your Face, a duet with perhaps one of the female backing vocalists (honestly, no idea), is about as pointlessly boring as you can get, fine for a dentist’s office, but should in no way be part of the great Tim Buckley’s catalog. And while Quicksand and Stone in Love aren’t as bad, they’re also enjoyably forgettable, and do not hold up to the first half of the album.

However, after the latter, the two-part title track picks things up again nicely, harkening back to the bright eyed troubadour days of 1968 (thanks to co-lyricist Larry Beckett), for an ambitious mini epic that may not be as ultimately pleasing as Goodbye and Hello, but is a surprising yet fitting change of pace for Sefronia and a minor gem of Buckley’s output. Finish off the album with the spritely agreeable reworking of the staple Sally, Go ‘Round the Roses, and Sefronia, while at times unremarkable, is certainly enjoyable and easily more accessible than anything Buckley released after 1969’s Blue Afternoon.

And then you can jump back to my previous post for thoughts on Look at the Fool.

I suppose once Buckley had gone “out there,” it was hard for critics to allow him to come back, and it seems once an artist goes too far from convention (as I’ll touch on later with other folks), putting out something more standard and straightforward is just out of the question. Rubbish.

But fan reviews I’ve read confirm my belief that both these albums are wrongly bashed by critics of both then and now, and while they may not carry the wandering majesty of Buckley’s folk period, the mystical crooning of his jazzy era or the atonal, rhythmic barrage of his avant-garde stint, Sefronia and Look at the Fool are two highly enjoyable if obviously lesser outings from an artist who lived to push the boundaries of what was considered music, but was still at the core of himself, a performer. Approach these two as such, and you’ll enjoy them as well.

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