How To Make The Whole World Sing: “Last Goodbye”
There is no shortage of superlatives to apply to Jeff Buckley. Amazing. Genius. Jaw-dropping. Ecstatic. Tragic. Angelic. Oddly enough, too few of them have been specifically directed toward his songwriting. This is unfortunate, if understandable: Buckley’s brief life and musical output were full of the sort of detail and experience that make for great biography and legend building. His incomparable voice, musical lineage and matinee-idol cheekbones would have been enough to shoot any performer into star-making orbit, and matters weren’t helped by the fact that Buckley became known as an expert interpreter of other people’s songs before his own writing style had a chance to fully blossom. Regardless, Buckley penned a number of truly powerful and highly unique songs that can teach us plenty about how we approach our own writing.
One of his most successful attempts is “Last Goodbye.” A quick troll through the myriad of sub-par cover versions on YouTube reveals what is so attractive about the song and, ultimately, its composer: “Last Goodbye” is completely and utterly its own animal, a rare integration of seemingly disparate elements that somehow work together seamlessly. While the song’s slide guitar intro and main guitar riff are decidedly Missisippi Delta, its rhythmic propulsion is more Detroit, almost danceable, while the harmonic structure of its foundational guitar chords drone away with the melancholic dissonance of North Africa. Then Buckley’s voice enters, gliding effortlessly over a melody that slowly ascends through the verses, never quite repeating itself, just slowly, sensually building a theme. Buckley purrs like Etta James, flutters like Edith Piaf and moans like Marvin Gaye, sometimes all within the same line. It is simply a fantastic performance.
“Last Goodbye” does not unfold in any kind of traditional structure. The song follows its own intuitive path, allowing the narrative of the lyric to develop naturally rather than limiting it to the repetitiveness of a chorus or refrain. It is not really a story with a beginning and end as much as a rumination, a reflection, the repeated viewing of the same events from slightly different musical perspectives. Its dynamic shifts subtly pull the listener to its penultimate scene, a moment of reckoning set to the sound of softly ringing church bells, the sort of emotional punctuation more common to the end of a Marcello Mastroianni film than something released on a major record label.
Ultimately, it is not a song to be very easily imitated, but “Last Goodbye” offers a songwriter a lot to think about. First and foremost, it is a fearless attempt at creating something new. It demonstrates that its composer was well-versed in an impressive variety of music and, more importantly, was not afraid to blend them together in the pursuit of something unique. Buckley’s success in doing this begs the question: As a writer, are you continually exposing yourself to new styles of music? We should never underestimate the power of our subconscious creative minds to reassemble new sounds, rhythms and harmonic structures into something wholly unique. Writing is as much about listening as putting pen to paper.
Finally, “Last Goodbye” encourages us to forget about the math and formulas in which we occasionally get stuck when writing. The seemingly loose structure of the song actually tightens the focus on its subject matter by mirroring the stream-of-consciousness process by which its thematic emotions often play out. Buckley not only portrayed the end of a relationship in a form that feels raw and unedited, but also infused it with enough musical dynamic to keep its energy building to crescendo. This is not easily accomplished (if you don’t believe me, head down to your local coffee shop and check out the opening act on any given Tuesday night), but it’s worth trying. So ask yourself: While writing, are you listening to your intuition and emotions about a song? Or just fitting lines into a lyrical and musical equation that you’ve heard a hundred times before? Don’t be afraid to mix it up a little. Buckley never was.