Tim Buckley’s Blue Afternoon (1969)

Blue is the warmest colour, Blue Afternoon is the loveliest Buckley album.

blue

I can’t even remember specifically how the music of Tim Buckley came into my life, which feels appropriate, because my favourite music by him has a similarly mysterious aura.

Pretty much all of Buckley’s music is brilliant – there’s even very worthwhile stuff on his final two, least loved albums – but for me Buckley’s most astonishing period starts with 1968’s Happy/Sad, continues with the following year’s Blue Afternoon and Lorca, and closes with the incredible, wild Starsailor in 1970. Here, Buckley began to divorce himself from the increasingly impressive run of relatively conventional song-based material that dominated his self-titled debut and the brilliant Goodbye and Hello. Those two albums, especially the latter, are rich, beautifully sung and evocative – if all we had from Buckley were those LPs, we’d still be talking about him with reverence.

Something happened on Happy/Sad now. The more free-form, experimental and jazzier sound of his live performances began to creep onto record, and with it, came an utterly masterly set of enigmatic, gorgeous and dreamy songs, of which there were only six, all allowed to stretch out and move at their own luxurious pace. Buckley’s chances of continued mainstream popularity would dwindle afterwards, yet it was on that record that Buckley soared above the wave of his contemporaries and became a true, individual artist. Happy/Sad is one of my all-time favourite albums.

Its follow-up, Blue Afternoon, is probably my go-to Buckley record though. It used to be quite the rarity too. Along with Starsailor, this album was released through Frank Zappa’s Bizarre/Straight labels, and due to ownership controversy that lasted decades, it was impossible to find copies of these albums in the shops. There were brief CD releases through Rhino records in the late 80’s, but they soon were deleted, and in the era before peer-to-peer sharing, the likes of Blue Afternoon and Starsailor were like these enigmatic, distant mirages, impossible to grasp. Weirdly, the once- fascinating, mysterious whereabouts of these albums suited the magical musical content of both albums.

Starsailor is one of the most far-out records ever released by a once-popular artist, and a miracle of vocal expression and musical experimentation. It was also home to the original ‘Song to the Siren’, one of the most purely beautiful songs of all time and one that was more famously covered in 1984 by 4AD house band This Mortal Coil, with Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser delivering an amazing vocal performance. The sparse simplicity of Buckley’s version is the one for me, however. Starsailor‘s obscurity suited its legendary content, and it still sounds incredible.

Blue Afternoon however, is a different kind of mysterious. Far more hushed, eerie, gentle and purely lovely, it feels like a seductive whisper in the distance. Not all of it, mind – the closing, free-form ‘The Train’ feels like a dry-run for the wilder Starsailor, for example. The other songs though glimmer with a hushed, beautiful tranquillity. Even when the music swells and rises, it still has a quietly transcendental quality to it that frees it from bombast. Here we have songs that are a kind of North American folk, given gentle, subtle contemporary embellishments like electric piano or electric guitar. The album’s title is most appropriate – it plays out like a day that’s pleasantly winding down for a few hours, when there’s the need for a rest, or a getaway, or a sorrowful cry, or even say, a secret meeting between two lovers in the middle of nowhere. It also has an air of melancholy, of loss and sadness. It is indeed a blue album. The cover, a close-up of a closed-eyed Buckley lost in some reverie while around him the world around him is rendered soft-focus and dream-like, perfectly mirrors its contents.

I recently listened to all of Blue Afternoon during a walk from my workplace to the train station where I get my train home. I took the scenic route to take in all 40 or so minutes of the album, and it was a beautiful, sunny evening. Walking past people in front of pubs, children in the playground, couples on the grass, through the street where the food market stretched from beginning to end earlier but had now packed away for the day. It was a calm evening – very hot for sure, but there was a stillness that worked well with this album. I think if I’d listened to the intense mania of Starsailor then the weather might have proved too much, but it worked great with Blue Afternoon. It’s also a great album to listen to when you’re exhausted, either mentally or physically. It’s a comfort.

‘Happy Time’ (originally written and demoed during the Happy/Sad sessions) opens the album, and it is indeed a happy song, but one that brings with it a gentle sadness. Maybe it’s just me. Sometimes the happiest songs can get me sad. I think what I love about Blue Afternoon is that, admittedly, it sees Buckley refraining from progression, and focusing simply on loveliness. Coming soon after Happy/Sad, it is indeed cut from the same cloth, albeit with a more resigned, softer and less immediate approach. It is at once less experimental than that album yet somehow even further out into the unknown, like a buoy out at sea. Maybe it’s the more subdued production and playing, which is less vibrant than its predecessor, more soft-focus and less in the foreground that makes it at once less risky yet more commercially remote. These are quiet, lovely songs, and ‘Happy Time’s is a lovely opening. The sounds of electric piano tie it to the period, and I love it. I wasn’t around in 1969, so I have my own imagined idea of what it was like. It’s a total fantasy, of course, but I don’t care.

The hushed, ‘Chase the Blues Away’ (another Happy/Sad-era song) is one of Buckley’s most intimate recordings. A song about the need for love and sex as a temporary release, you feel like you’re right there, within the private moments between two lovers, although this isn’t like the hot, sticky and sweaty fuckmusic of Buckley’s later Greetings from L.A. It’s just as erotic, but less messy, more poetic, and deeply, deeply lovely, yet also with an unsettled, dark vibe that feels like the happy times aren’t here to stay, that it’s all transient. ‘I Must Have Been Blind’ seems to call to mind a kind of religious awakening, especially with the ‘Lord’ that precedes the title in the chorus and an early reference to ‘praying;, but whether or not its about spiritual or secular love isn’t clear. It does have a vague, stripped-down gospel feel to it, and it’s gorgeous. ‘The River’ is the centrepiece of the album, a tremulous, shivering epic, a promise of love from singer to listener, albeit one as unpredictable as the flow of its title’s subject matter. ‘So Lonely’ is the album’s lightest moment – it’s the Tim Buckley Blues, with a slightly knowing feel of ‘woe is me’ here, describing a town where the cops treat you dirty and the children are mean. It’s not a comedy song, but you can imagine Buckley with the mildest of wry smiles on his face performing it.

The astonishing ‘Cafe’ exudes the chill of open vistas, landscape visions, while the lyrics are often elemental – talk of sea, breezes, mountains and the like. It’s essentially a tale of boy meets girl, if only for what seems like a achingly brief while. The narrator, describing himself as ‘just a curly-haired mountain boy’ passes through some undisclosed location (somewhere by the sea is all we’re given), meets the the lonesome girl with ‘sad, china eyes’ and instantly a mysterious attraction develops between them, and our narrator is already talking of love as the two waltz ‘to our heartbeat’, sharing a moment that may or may not have moved on to something else, something sexual, possibly. Whatever does happen takes places during the song’s instrumental passage and we’ll never know what that was, but after that time has ‘slipped on by…and with the time, so did our love’. The experience, however long this may have lasted, has now affected him forever, ‘burning inside’ him like a fever. And so the song drifts away, like a dream fading away as dawn rises. The opening self-deprecation of ‘just a’ mountain boy suggests that this experience was possibly a first love. The fact that he was curly-haired suggests that maybe this song has an element of auto-biography about it. That no other characters make an appearance gives it an intense intimacy.

‘Blue Melody’ is just so damn warm, a welcome drink at the bar after the cold chill of ‘Cafe’. Opening with beautiful piano and resting into a lovely, relaxed shuffle, it’s more a heartfelt blues than ‘So Lonely’, lacking the pastiche of that song and just drifting by on a kind of blissful melancholy, of a loneliness that brings with it some kind of exquisite beauty. Don’t get me wrong – loneliness hurts like little else, but when the music’s right and the sadness hits your heart in just the right way…I don’t know, I guess you end up creating songs like this.

I must say however, ‘The Train’ is an odd way to close the album. It’s totally at odds with what’s preceded it, and normally I wouldn’t have a problem with this sort of thing, but when a mood such as that spun by Blue Afternoon has bewitched me so utterly, I do find the more rambunctious, free-form and extended jam of ‘The Train’ a wake-up call I’m not sure I want. The Beach Boys did the same on their similarly lovely album Friends, following eleven beautiful songs with the ironically titled rocker ‘Transcendental Meditation’. However, unlike the BB song, which is rather crap, at least ‘The Train’ is really good. I just wish it was on another album. It certainly points the way towards the sound of Buckley’s later sound, so from a chronological, historical point of view it’s a fascinating close to the album. But I’m not listening to Blue Afternoon as part of a piece in the Buckley puzzle. I’m listening to it for itself, and for the most part it’s an astonishingly lovely album.

After this Buckley released Lorca through Elektra/Warners, and because of that, it has regularly been available to buy, unlike either of the albums that bookend it. It’s an interesting album, returning to the long-form songcraft of Happy/Sad but almost doubling as its darker, sparser twin. The first side in particular remains his most stripped-back, difficult stretch of music. Even the album after that, Starsailor, which is even more experimental, risky and wild (especially on the vocal front), is nevertheless so kaleidoscopic and breathtaking in its approach that it’s a lot more engaging and exciting, whereas much of Lorca is still likely to unnerve and disarm with its starkness. It might make you, on first listen, want to retreat back to Blue Afternoon, because there are few albums that are so beguilingly lovely and purely beautiful. Now that it’s far more easy to access (although a stand-alone CD release hasn’t happened in the US or UK/Europe), there’s no better (or cheaper) time to discover it.

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