954 - Tim Buckley 'Happy Sad' (1968)

My Rating: 2.00 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die:
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): --/81

Favourite Tracks: Love From Room 109 At The Islander
Least-Favourite Tracks:
Gypsy Woman

Happy Sad proved an appropriate title for an album that offered up such a pleasing first half yet such a disappointing second. It was a scorching hot day so I stuck this on whilst stretched out in a shady corner of the garden and it soon seemed like the perfect setting. Strange Feelin’ kicks things off oh-so gently with languorous marimbas & a meandering double bass and the track strolls along as if it has all the time in the world; an electric guitar solos lazily, the vibes plink-plonk for a while and the effect is all rather serene. Wait a minute though… isn’t that tune lifted from Miles Davis’ All Blues? And what about those marimbas & double-bass – is this a jazz album Mr Buckley? Well no, not really; the musicians clearly aren’t “jazzers” but what they lack in technical proficiency, they more than make up for in feeling. So this is something of a folk-jazz hybrid and for a while at least, quite a successful one.

The album’s highpoint was Love From Room 109 At The Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway), a big mouthful of a title that signals an equally large-proportioned song. Weighing in at a hefty 11 minutes or so, this epic track starts off like some acoustic session by The Doors (complete with its Yes The River Knows-style guitar break) yet soon morphs into something quite unique. The tempo plummets to a funereal pace and a complicated melody starts weaving its way around scratchy violins & the sound of a crashing sea. It’s a song with a loose organic structure, as if the band members are composing it on a Ouija board, all pushing it in a certain direction yet never quite knowing who is in overall control nor where they will heading next. And yet, it works. And back in the days when music emanated from those grooves in black vinyl
it would have closed out “side one” with a flourish.

However that minimalist, organic technique continues into “side two” and here it begins to show its limitations. Gypsy Woman feels particularly under-produced; a song whose naked ambition outstrips its naked arrangement, it flounders flimsily under Buckley’s impassioned cries, like Kenny G doing a cover of Metallica. The unstructured approach, so successful on Love From Room 109 fails dismally here and the song lurches along aimlessly like some drunken, drummer-less jam session. As for Buckley’s vocal histrionics, well when The Flight Of The Conchords do it it’s funny, but here the falsetto swoops, growls & off-key vibrato are just irritating. With a 12 minute runtime, make that bloody irritating.

I was a bit disappointed with Tim Buckley’s singing. I’d read dozens of glowing reviews and Allmusic has dubbed him “one of the great rock vocalists of the 1960s” but on the evidence of this album I can’t agree. For a start he has a “gnarrrrey” timbre coupled with a wavering pitch that can make him sound a bit like Mr Bean gargling. Stylistically inconsistent, his voice also seemed a little short of range & struggled to jump through the many flaming hoops Buckley placed in front of it.

I also felt many reviewers overstated the poeticism of the lyrics. Take Strange Feelin’; “Well it's just like a mockingbird a-singing on a hillside / Chirping at his morning song / But don't you weep don't you fret don't you wail don't you moan / Can't you hear that whippoorwill a-callin? / Now don't you worry / Your daddy's comin' home / He's gonna chase those blues away”. Yes Buckley evokes typical pastoral “poetic” imagery, birdsongs, mountain breezes & the like, but allied to rock clichés like “your daddy” & “chasing the blues away” the sentiments often seemed woolly & rather hollow. The exception being Dream Letter where Buckley uses much simpler language yet suggests much deeper emotion; “All I need to know tonight / How are you and my child? / Oh is he a soldier / or is he a dreamer? / Is he mama's little man? / Does he help you when he can? / Oh does he ask about me?” OK we know he’s talking about his estranged son Jeff & the tragedy that surrounded both their lives certainly adds an extra dimension, yet I still found it a powerful song about the genuine anguish & regrets of a broken family.

Just 6 songs here so the original 1968 LP was neatly divided into 3 tracks per side. And if I had owned this album on vinyl, it would have been one of those where side one was covered in scratches & fingerprints, yet side two would have remained forever in shiny mint condition. Happy Sad indeed.


crowbarred said...

Tim Buckley gave many people many things, but the best thing of all is he gave us Jeff [albeit he did not want his own son] Song for Siren is his masterpiece, but Jeff was his true masterpiece. On another note ...if i could write as half as good as you I would be twice as good, Alan ~ crowbarred :)

Alan Heller said...

Thanks for your kind words Crowbarred. Haven't given Jeff Buckley a proper listen yet - will have to wait a while too as he's up near the top of the list.

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