'Song to the Siren' was the last track on side one of Buckley's 1970 LP 'Starsailor
'. It was written in the mid-60s by Buckley (music - apparently improvised on the spot) and Larry Beckett
(lyrics, based on Homer's Odyssey
), and is the song for which he is most remembered. Despite this, the album has been out of print for over thirty years now; Buckley was never a great commercial force, and it wasn't until the death of his son Jeff that the world started to take notice of him. The only way to hear this song nowadays is via compilation albums or the internet.
'Siren' is one of the more conventional songs on the album, in that it has a verse and a chorus and what appears to be a bridge; nonetheless, it is a skeletal thing, essentially a vocal improvisation over a handful of chords. Fans of Talk Talk's post-'Spirit of Eden' career would recognise the style instantly.
The production is striking; Buckley's voice is untreated and mixed much higher than the music, which consists of nothing more than a distant electric guitar and Buckley's own backing vocalisation, both treated with masses of reverb. The effect of mixing Buckley so high is to make the song almost a capella, with a distant ambient wash that breaks through occassionally. The dry vocals are like a slap in the face.
Buckley's vocal delivery is as idiosyncratic as other songs on the rest of the album; he sings with a pronounced vibrato, and sustains notes for longer than seems humanly possible. From line to line he sounds drunk, miserable, transfixed; after this album Buckley made a complete stylistic volte-face towards funk-rock, perhaps realising that there was nowhere left to go in the indescribable territory he had created and explored.
Hard as it is to believe, the widest exposure this song received before This Mortal Coil's cover version was from a 1967 episode of The Monkees' television show, in which he performed the song live.
The song is made even more haunting by the manner of Jeff Buckley's death; "Swim to me, swim to me, let me enfold you" gives me the shivers.
A curious piece of trivia; the line 'did I dream, you dreamed about me?' from This Mortal Coil's version was the basis for 'Temple of Dreams', by the short-lived rave group Messiah. TMC's version itself has an almost identical instrumental backing; Elizabeth Fraser's delivery is more showy, more Whitney Houstony than Buckley's, and is swamped in chorus.