Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
The first time I heard the name Nick Drake was in 1985, when I was 19. A new band called Dream Academy had just released their debut single, “Life In A Northern Town,” which they dedicated to him. I don’t remember if his name was listed in the album credits, on the single sleeve, or just in the reviews of the record, but the name “Nick Drake” stuck in my head. I knew nothing about his music, and I may not have even been aware that he was a musician. As far as I knew, he could’ve been a 17th century poet or a Renaissance architect. Although I would continue to read more about him, it would be another decade before I finally heard his music.
In the intervening years, I developed an affection for British folk music, especially artists like Fairport Convention, Roy Harper, Ralph McTell, Steeleye Span and Richard & Linda Thompson, yet still never came across any Nick Drake recordings. Then, in early 1996, I received a three volume CD series on Rhino Records called Troubadours Of British Folk. The first disc was excellent, but the second disc (subtitled “Folk Into Rock”) really blew me away, and it included all of the artists I mentioned above, along with Traffic (whose catalog I already owned & loved), Lindisfarne and several others. But when I heard track #5, Nick Drake’s “Three Hours,” I immediately stopped what I was doing to find out who possessed this deep, haunting voice, and who the incredible acoustic guitar player was. Much to my (pleasant) surprise, both of these were Nick Drake. He was accompanied on this track by conga player Rocki Dzidzornu, as well as folk/jazz bassist Danny Thompson (whose playing I already knew from The Pentangle), but his singing is what really won me over. Within a week, I purchased the single CD compilation Way To Blue (An Introduction To Nick Drake), although ironically, “Three Hours” wasn’t included. I loved what I heard so much that, shortly thereafter, I completed my Nick Drake collection with the Fruit Tree box set, which included all three of the albums he released during his lifetime, as well as a posthumous collection of studio outtakes, home recordings and other previously unreleased songs. I will discuss all of these below.
Revisiting Nick Drake’s catalog has been different than any of the artists I’ve covered here so far. All of those artists have had lengthier careers with various peaks & valleys, and have covered multiple styles and genres. Because Drake’s recording career only lasted 3-4 years, from 1969-1972 (not counting the final four recordings he made in 1974, just before his death), his style didn’t have a chance to develop, other than the subtle changes he made on each album. With a few minor exceptions, his songs are quiet, somber, even depressing. After one or two listens most songs tend to sound similar, but with each subsequent listen the uniqueness of many of these songs slowly reveals itself. Sometimes it was due to the musical accompaniment, and other times it was the lack thereof, but through it all one thing remained constant: that one-of-a-kind voice, as well as his completely underrated dexterity on the acoustic guitar. His guitar playing was obviously influenced by British folk greats like Bert Jansch and John Renbourn (also of the aforementioned Pentangle), as well as Davy Graham, whose work I only recently discovered. There isn’t a weak song on any of his albums, so there’s a lot of ground to cover here.
His debut album, Five Leaves Left (1969), is a nearly perfect collection, especially remarkable considering he was only 21 when it was recorded. I love the way his voice comes seemingly out of nowhere, in the middle of his guitar pattern, on album opener “Time Has Told Me.” This is something he does on many of his songs, giving them an airy, ethereal quality. Also featuring Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson on twangy leady guitar, this song has mature lyrics for such a young writer (“Time has told me not to ask for more, for someday our ocean will find its shore”). “River Man” features Drake on guitar and vocal, accompanied by a string arrangement (from his school friend, Robert Kirby), which becomes a featured soloist. This song has some dark lyrics (“Going to see the river man, going to tell him all I can about the ban on feeling free”), where it seems he wants to flow freely down life’s river but is unable to do so. The previously mentioned “Three Hours” is a classic. It reminds me of Bob Dylan’s longer tracks, with multiple stanzas of music instead of verses & choruses, and I love how the tempo slows down during the instrumental sections. Kirby provides another beautiful string arrangement on “Way To Blue,” which is the only musical accompaniment (no guitar). Is this some kind of prayer to a higher power (“Tell me all you may know, show me what you have to show”)? His voice gets extra deep, mimicking a cello, at the words “know” and “show.” “Day Is Done” is a maudlin tune, reminding me of Pink Floyd’s “Time” (which wouldn’t be written for another few years), and featuring some deep lyrics (for such a young man) about time running out: “When the party’s through, seems so very sad for you; Didn’t do the things you meant to do, now there’s no time to start anew, now the party’s through.”
His smooth vocals on “Cello Song” sound as though he’s soothing someone who’s dying, letting her know he’s watching over her, yet it’s surprisingly cheerful. There’s a great plucked guitar pattern, and the bass & conga arrangement are similar to “Three Hours,” but the haunting cello melody really carries this song. “The Thoughts Of Mary Jane” is pastoral sounding, almost wistful, and it’s the first time the album truly breathes, like a pleasant sigh. “Man In A Shed” has a nice, bouncy piano melody, but it’s probably the weakest song here, both lyrically & melodically. “Fruit Tree” is deep & prophetic, about the fame he craved which sadly eluded him in his lifetime (“Safe in your place deep in the earth, that’s when they’ll know what you were really worth”). The arrangement is beautiful (especially the woodwinds), and I love the vocal melody at “It can never flourish ‘til its stalk is in the ground.” The album ends with the slow, jazzy “Saturday Sun,” which is like the downbeat cousin of the old standard, “That Lucky Old Sun,” about the sad passing of time. Although on the surface the album might sound like a downer, there’s something about his voice and the instrumental performances that make it much more enjoyable than it seems.
For his follow-up, Bryter Layter (1970), he and producer Joe Boyd opted for slightly fuller arrangements (there’s bass & drums throughout), giving it a jazzier feel than the debut. I’m not sure if this is the case, but I always assumed that the title was a play on the words “brighter later,” as though he’s saying things will get better somewhere down the road. The album opens with the brief instrumental, “Introduction,” which is lush & pretty, and could be part of a movie score. It leads into “Hazey Jane II,” featuring three members of Fairport Convention (Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks and Richard Thompson) and a horn arrangement giving it an upbeat pop song feel. It’s not far removed from the psychedelic pop of Love’s Forever Changes album. The upbeat music belies some more melancholy lyrics that look back to a childhood that’s gone, and presents the world as a scary & lonely place. I can imagine that he didn’t like the cocktail jazz arrangement (including alto sax) on “At The Chime Of A City Clock.” It’s a nice song with lush, sophisticated strings, but it didn’t strike me even after playing it numerous times. It’s followed by one of his best songs, “One Of These Things First.” It’s probably the lightest, peppiest song in his catalog, reminding me of early Cat Stevens, and features some nice piano from Paul Harris. Is this one about reincarnation (“could’ve been…one of these things first”)? I really like the way he draws out the word “been” in the choruses.
“Hazey Jane I” may share a title with part II, but it’s airier & darker, with Dave Mattacks’ mallet playing on the drums creating a muted & solemn mood. Again, he’s singing about the world being a scary place (“Do you feel like a remnant of something that’s past; Do you find things are moving just a little too fast?”). The album’s second instrumental track, “Bryter Layter,” could also be from a movie score. It’s a peaceful tune with a nice flute melody and a tasteful string arrangement. The Velvet Underground’s John Cale provides viola & harpsichord on “Fly,” which is a nice song but the melody never grabbed me. His voice gets higher than usual at “I’ve fallen so far…” British female singers Pat (P.P.) Arnold and Doris Troy provide some lovely and playful vocals on “Poor Boy,” and the jazzy music (especially Chris McGregor’s piano) reminds me of Vince Guaraldi’s scores for the various Peanuts/Charlie Brown cartoons. It’s one of the rare “fun” songs in his catalog. He also sounds optimistic on “Northern Sky,” with lyrics like “I never felt magic crazy as this…but now you’re here, brighten my northern sky.” There’s also a great slowed-down instrumental section before “Would you love me for my money…” which adds to the charm of the song. Ray Warleigh’s flute carries the album-closing instrumental, “Sunday.” It reminds me of the quieter passages on The Moody Blues’ early albums, and although I like this tune a lot, it would’ve been nice to hear his voice here. I know that many fans consider this album his finest hour, and although it’s hard to argue that, song-for-song I don’t think it’s quite at the level of Five Leaves Left.
With little commercial success for his first two albums, he briefly considered retiring from music, but eventually wrote some songs and decided that he wanted his third album to be completely sparse, with just his voice and guitar (and one piano overdub). Pink Moon (1972) became the final album released during his lifetime, and for many fans it’s his definitive statement. It’s brief (less than 29 minutes) and direct, and includes some of his most beautiful tunes. The title track, “Pink Moon,” was featured in a Volkswagen commercial around 1999-2000, which led to a modern resurgence in his music. He was always a well-respected critical darling, but that exposure turned him into a household name and gave him the fame that sadly eluded him during his lifetime. The song itself is a great one, although it’s unclear if the title actually refers to a pink-colored moon, or perhaps something more ominous (“Pink moon is on its way…gonna get ye all”). He sounds older and wearier than his years on “Place To Be,” longing for his younger days but singing, “Now I’m darker than the deepest sea…Now I’m weaker than the palest blue.” The harmonics in his guitar playing on “Road” are breathtaking, sounding like multiple guitar players are accompanying him. There are only two verses, with most of the lyrics repeated in the second verse, and they show the pessimistic side of his personality that was consuming him (“You can say the sun is shining if you really want to…I can see the moon and it seems so clear”).
On “Which Will,” he’s singing to a woman he knows he’ll never get (“Which will you take now, if you won’t take me?”). It’s sad, but has some pretty guitar playing. “Horn” is a very brief instrumental with sparse notes, many of them way up the neck of the guitar. It’s a melody that would sound great on the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument. “Things Behind The Sun” is among his most beautiful and haunting melodies, and I love when it shifts to an optimistic tone (“Take your time and you’ll be fine and say a prayer for the people there…”). Musically, there’s not a lot going on in the song “Know,” with a short, muted guitar figure repeated throughout. It also has some depressing lyrics (“Know that I love you, know I don’t care; You know that I see you, you know I’m not there”). He’s down on himself again for “Parasite” (“…take a look, you may see me on the ground, for I am the parasite of this town”), but his vocals are controlled and powerful, like he’s right there on the other side of the speakers. “Ride” (also listed as “Free Ride”) and “Harvest Breed” both feature nice guitar playing, but I didn’t find anything exceptional about them. The album closes on a relatively optimistic note with “From The Morning,” with some great finger picked guitar and upbeat lyrics (“A day once dawned and it was beautiful”; “Then the night she fell, and the air was beautiful”). It’s a lovely way to close out his official discography. This is one of those albums that creates a particular mood, so under the right circumstances it’s amazing, and at other times too depressing, but there’s no denying that it’s an incredibly powerful collection of songs.
Years after his death in 1974, his record company released a collection of previously unreleased songs called Time Of No Reply (1986). The first four songs were recorded during sessions for Five Leaves Left. The title track, “Time Of No Reply,” is stark and haunting but not depressing. “I Was Made To Love Magic” features an orchestral arrangement that’s a little sweet and syrupy, but has some dark lyrics (“I was born to love no one, no one to love me”). “Joey” is a slight song that didn’t make much of an impression. “Clothes Of Sand” feels a bit like “Fruit Tree” but isn’t nearly as powerful. I also have no idea what the title of the song means. I prefer this bare-bones version of “Man In A Shed” over the album version, but it’s still a minor song. “Mayfair” has a nice bouncy melody that reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).” The version of “The Thoughts Of Mary Jane” here is elevated by Richard Thompson’s lead guitar, which gives it a different flavor than the album version. “Been Smoking Too Long” is a great little bluesy song that clearly shows the influence of Bert Jansch. The last four songs were recorded in February 1974, and they were Nick Drake’s final recordings. None of them are as essential as anything from the three official albums, but they’re all worthwhile. “Rider On The Wheel” has some exquisite guitar picking and typically beautiful vocals. “Black Eyed Dog” has him singing in a higher register, with a little quavering in his voice. There’s sparse guitar and dark lyrics (“I’m growing old and I wanna go home and I don’t wanna know”). Although I really like this recording, it’s too bad it didn’t receive a fuller arrangement. “Hanging On A Star” is a simple song with bitter lyrics about his lack of fame (“Why leave me hanging on a star when you deem me so high?”). “Voice From The Mountain” closes out this collection with a simple guitar pattern and a couple of long verses, as well as lyrics that could be interpreted as a cry for help (“Tell me my friend, my friend, tell me with love; Where can it end, it end, the voice from above?”).
It’s a shame that Nick Drake didn’t live long enough to see himself become a key figure in modern music, as countless artists have now referenced him as a major influence. Sadly, the image of Nick Drake as a shy, quiet, clinically depressed introvert seems to be the way he’s constantly perceived, and although it became a major part of his persona, I don’t think he was always that way. Before the initial failure of his first two albums, he was another young musician dreaming of fame and fortune, and I believe that a lot of the melancholy lyrics on those albums were sung in character instead of being confessional. Since he didn’t perform in public very often, there aren’t many photos of him, and the majority of the photos that do exist perpetuate the myth of the sad, struggling artist. The two photos I’ve included here are among my favorites, as one shows him with a huge smile on his face, and the other has him posed with a camera, as though he’s turning the focus back on the listener. After all, the most important thing about Nick Drake was the music he gave us, and I’m happy that I finally got to know these albums in a way that I never did before. I also hope that by sharing my comments on these records, I’ve inspired some people to re-discover his music, or possibly check it out for the first time. If so, let me know what you think.