Tim Buckley: Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974 (Omnivore Recordings)

les artim-buckley

Tim Buckley
Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974
Omnivore Recordings

Tim Buckley was a unique talent, a young man with multiple visions of where his music should go, and a fearless determination to see his muse through. Furthermore, he’s not an artist who had a “hit” song, and unlike most musicians, his most beloved songs were never singles. In fact, Buckley seemingly wasn’t a singles artist, but Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974 collects the lot of the few singles he did release, offering up an alternate view of Buckley’s short but significant career. It’s not a greatest hits, though; his musical choices throughout the middle part of his career took him out of the singles game, and any form of ‘hits’ collection would need to include those problematic, frustrating sides as well.

Buckley, who began his career in the Los Angeles folk scene, relocated to Greenwich Village in 1966 and soon garnered a record deal with Elektra, and quickly recorded his self-titled debut album. It was a low-key affair; Buckley, who was just nineteen, was singing songs he wrote when he was younger, and it’s that innocence that props up “Wings” and “Aren’t You The Girl.” The lush arrangements are nice, but they overwhelm the already wan songs. These numbers offer up a picture of a young man still figuring out who he was, and while not particularly outstanding, Tim Buckley offered up great promise.

He matured quickly, though. Goodbye and Hello came a year later, but Buckley was already beyond naive folkie druthers of his debut. The songs are darker, deeper, and more emotionally heavy, and it’s easy to understand why the label put more effort into promoting it. Of its ten songs, five of them appear hear, including one of his most well-known songs, “Morning Glory,” which became a “hit” alongside later songs “I Must Have Been Blind” and “Song Of The Siren” when 4AD mastermind Ivo Watts-Russell recorded and released them as part of his This Mortal Coil trilogy. But the other tracks here are certainly worth noting; “Knight-Errant” is an upbeat, Donovan-style folk rock number. “Once I Was” is an interesting number; not quite blues,and definitely not folk, it’s a downbeat, melancholic number that is all hardness and coldness, tempered by his heavenly voice, which sounds downright heartbreaking when he sings, “Will you ever remember me?” The song is heavily reminiscent of his contemporary Fred Neil; in fact, the previously quoted lyric borrows from Neil’s “Dolphins,” which Buckley would later record and release as a single from his 1973 album Sefronia. It’s “Pleasant Street,” though, that really impresses; it’s a slinky, dark, intense blues-rock number that finds him giving his heaviest performance to date; when he releases his falsetto, it’s a powerful, cathartic moment. It’s unlike anything else on Goodbye And Hello—so titled because he knew he would be going in a brand new direction, even as the record was felt to prove his introduction to a wider audience.

But that journey would prove ill-fated, ill-advised. Happy Sad, his third album, was a stylistic jump into a folk-meets-free jazz hybrid, and though it sold well, its songs were too long for single release. The album found Buckley utilizing his voice in more abstract ways, stretching his singing out over longer passages, and learning to blend it and bend it into a unique new sound. But he was still writing traditionally structured songs, and Blue Afternoon appeared mere weeks after Happy Sad. Its single, “Happy Time,” backed with “So Lonely,” were mellow affairs, both appealing singer/songwriter numbers that are tinged with a slightly psychedelic country rock sound not too far removed from the forthcoming 70s LA sound. As he was exploring these new sounds on Blue Afternoon, he recorded Lorca, an album that doubled down on Happy Sad’s experimental side and is, to put it frankly, utter crap. Starsailor appeared a few months later; it found Buckley returning to the styles explored on Blue Afternoon, but Lorca—an album he would proudly declare as an intentional screw you to his audience—still rankled; he had succeeded in alienating his audience, so unsurprisingly, Starsailor was virtually ignored.

If his remaining fans thought Lorca had been a major curveball, they would soon discover that 1972’s Greetings From L.A. was a real shocker. Gone were the folkie songs and the self-indulgent free jazz ramblings; instead, he was now a rock singer, fronting one helluva tight R&B-influenced bar band,complete with horn sections and female backing singers. His songs exuded pure sexuality; the album’s sole single, “Move With Me” and “Nightwalkin’,” are lascivious as hell, and the production is heavy-handed and bloated…but in an amazingly wonderful way, too. Buckley didn’t half-ass this stylistic change; Greetings From L.A. might be confusing, but it’s easily the strongest and most confident-sounding of all his records. 

From that point, he stuck with the style; 1973’s Sefronia toned down the heavy-handed production; a good thing, as such a dramatic about-face was the sort of thing an artist like Buckley could only pull off once—but he stuck with the rock and roll. “Quicksand” and “Honey Man” are damn fine bar-rockers, and his take on Fred Neil’s “Dolphins” is quite moving. The follow-up, the unfortunately titled Look At The Fool, would prove to be his finale;  the catchy “Wanda Lu” was paired with genuinely touching “Who Could Deny You,” a song that veers into Yacht Rock territory, and seemingly might have been a jumping point for the big commercial breakthrough he deserved. Yet it all came to an end on June 29, 1975, when he foolishly indulged in some heroin at a post-tour party and died a few hours later.

Yet his life being cut short is probably the one thing that kept his legacy alive; a unique voice, silenced way too soon. It’s not surprising that he was rediscovered, nor is it that his son Jeff, who possessed gorgeous looks and an even more intense and heavenly voice than Tim, was feted (and fated) to follow in his absent, unknown father’s footsteps. Wings serves as a reminder of who Tim Buckley was—an über-talented young man with a trail of amazing songs as his legacy—and is an essential primer of his work.

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