I guess I went through the usual initiation ceremony most Nick Drake addicts go through – the first listen to the man’s debut didn’t make a single impression. Maybe occasional interesting tidbits, moments and smidgeons. The guy’s humility and lack of a pretentious “I’m wiser than the world, see me prove that” atmosphere was nice, but I kinda failed to see what good qualities Nick had to counteract that perspective. His guitar picking is nice and professional, but it’s obvious he’s not about the guitar; if you wanna hear some really weird quasi-folk acoustic picking, check out Tyrannosaurus Rex instead. His dim, inobtrusive baritone leaves you with a friendly feeling but equally fails to impress on his own. The melodies are dang near non-existent as far as instrumental work goes and are very hard to spot as far as vocals go, besides, several songs actually share more or less the same vocal melody. And the lyrics, solid and thoughtful as they are, just can’t compensate for everything else. Besides, the man hasn’t got even a tiny streak of humour.
That’s the first Nick Drake listen for you. The only good thing about that initial experience is that deep down inside you are left with the urge to listen to this for the second time, because somehow you feel that you don’t like the album because you don’t get it, not because you already got it. And then it starts growing. And in the end the record comes out as the minor folksy masterpiece it is. Too bad I can’t remember a single song of it even if I’m way through my eighth or ninth listen. But enough ME. It’s a Nick Drake record. It’s almost purely acoustic, although occasionally Nick is backed by Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention playing modest electric licks in the background. Danny Thompson contributes bass, Paul Harris joins in on occasional piano, and Robert Kirby arranges all the strings on the album, which also form an essential part of the experience (of course, there will always be dorks saying that the strings actually spoil the experience, but it’s not my fault if somebody’s been fed up with Fifties’ Hollywood movies, nor is it Robert Kirby’s who actually arranges everything in good taste).
And it’s a ‘mood piece’, of course. So much a mood piece that sometimes I fail to notice the pause between tracks; only a slight shift in Nick’s intonation, a different hook or a different twitch in arrangement indicates that we’re on to the next part. As a ‘mood piece’, it, of course, shows Drake’s stylistic limitations – the man obviously doesn’t want and probably can’t shift to anything different – but since the songs themselves are pretty short, it’s no big problem. What is the mood, then, actually? Some call it depressing and bleak; I prefer to simply call it BLUE. Or GRAY, if you wish. Autumnal, as many have said. These songs are mostly minor in their essence, but it isn’t as if they’re written from the point of view of a bitter, thoroughly depressed person. It’s more like a position of a sceptical philosopher, contemplating his own and everybody else’s frailty and weakness in this mysterious and dangerous world. In other words, it’s a THINKING man’s album rather than a simply FEELING man’s album – not that there’s anything wrong with either.
It would be pretty hard to pick out highlights on the album; the only song that doesn’t do anything for me is the rather pointless ‘Cello Song’ which has no special hook as far as I’m concerned. The other nine all have something. ‘Time Has Told Me’ is a love song without any apparent ‘hidden message’, but there does seem to be some kind of concealed ‘menace’ in the ‘leave the ways that are making you be what you really don’t want to be’ chorus, the kind of strange attention-drawing trick that transforms a basic love ballad into an enigma. ‘River Man’, in stark contrast to its rather ‘upbeat’ predecessor, is somewhat creepy with its mystical allusions… somebody just shoot the dork who complained about the orchestration on Amazon.com, it’s the friggin’ best part of the song, with the gloomy cellos and the shimmering violins perfectly playing off each other to illustrate the ‘dark’ and the ‘bright’ of the song. ‘Three Hours’ gets us back to stark folkish territory with medieval overtones and even stranger poetic allusions – the ‘in search of a master, in search of a slave’ bit looks almost like something taken off a Leonard Cohen album. (Which actually reminds me that it would be quite an interesting matter to draw a more detailed comparison between the two. Anybody looking for a fresh topic on a music-related essay? Fresh topics for a penny!).
Anyway, it’s useless to go through all the other songs in a row, so let me just concentrate on the two last ones – ‘Fruit Tree’ is quite glorious, and wasn’t it written as a prediction? I mean, Nick Drake is obviously recognized better today than he was during his lifetime. Or will be recognized (or should be recognized), anyway. Fabulous oboe part, too. And I’m also quite partial as to what concerns the closing number, the jazzy piano-based ‘Saturday Sun’, which has – can you imagine? – a bit of a McCartneyesque feel to it, I guess. But maybe not. The vibraphone part is celestial.
Obviously, the most seductive thing about this all is how dang IN-OB-TRUSIVE it is. No loudness, no abrasiveness, and no rhythmic catchiness either. And Nick sings it all like he’s just standing out there at the window, like on the front cover, nonchalantly whistling away his little observations to no-one in particular. Married with his talent, this makes up for an album that’s so drastically subtle it’s in danger of being unnoticed…. which, come to think of it, it was. Maybe Nick Drake should have hired Mike Bloomfield or the Band to ensure his popularity. Then again, maybe he shouldn’t. What works well for ones works shittily for others.
It’s a little belief of mine that what’s wrong with the modern world can be summed up in just one small word: cliché. No matter where we turn to in an attempt to avoid the hackneyed, overdone phrases that make up a huge amount of our lives, we hear them: a musician who’s going to be forgotten within a year is a genius, a world leader who makes a decision we disagree with is the new Hitler, and some whining singer is the spokesman for Generation X. Just out of interest, what the hell is Generation X, anyway? I gather that I’m a part of it, but I can’t say that I either know or care what it is. But anyway, I digress. My point is this. As a way of expressing our views on life, cliché is horrible, and yet it’s growing all the time, undermining things that should be expressed in strong terms. Having said all that though, I’m going to have to use a phrase here which is used in pretty much every description of Nick Drake that you’re ever going to read. Here we go.
There are few artists who have been more underrated than Nick Drake, who have then gone on to influence so many people.
There. I said it. It’s the ultimate cliché surrounding Nick Drake, and yet it’s completely impossible to mention him without using it at least once. Why? Because it is undeniably completely true. The list of artists that Nick Drake has inspired is massive, ranging from Elliott Smith to Iron & Wine, to a huge number of singer/songwriters that exist in the outer ranges of popular music. And yet this is a man that could leave the master tapes of his final album, Pink Moon on the front desk of his record label before waiting days before anyone even noticed that he’d left them there. There’s something faintly incompatible about those two statements, don’t you think?
While Pink Moon is the album that most often gets associated with Nick Drake, partially because of its softly mournful nature, and partially because of the context that its in, there’s a case for saying that either of his two previous albums are better. Bryter Later was his most complex composition, as well as having a more upbeat atmosphere throughout. This album, Drake’s debut, strikes the middle ground between Bryter Later and Pink Moon to perfection, with Drake’s compellingly plaintive singing being very much the centre of the album, but there still being room for instruments other than Drake’s acoustic guitar. Indeed, one of the most notable features of the album is Danny Thompson’s work on the bass. Although he never comes close to overshadowing Drake as such, his playing on songs such as Cello Song adds another mood to the music, making this an album that one can constantly return to, finding new sounds to enjoy every time.
One thing that never ceases to amaze me though, every time I hear this album, is how underrated a guitarist Nick Drake is. Most clearly shown on Three Hours, where Drake plays a beautifully weaving guitar line that somehow has a deep inner energy over Rocky Dzidzornu’s flat sounding drums, Drake really comes into his own as a guitarist, showing an ability on the acoustic guitar that few folk singers could match. Another thing that Three Hours adds to the album, more so than either of Drake’s other albums is a longer song that rivals his briefer musical sketches. Pink Moon is famous for its brevity at under 30 minutes, and while Five Leaves Left is still less than 40 minutes long, the six minutes of Three Hours seems to pass as if in a dream. Although that sounds as if it ought to have a negative connotation, I tend to find that music which does that can often be the best music out there. For example, take a look at Drake’s singing. The possessor of a deeply soothing voice, a lot of the time the listener can’t make out what he’s saying unless you really listen out for the lyrics. On Three Hours the only lyrics you’ll be able to make out if you’re busy doing something else are, In search of a master
In search of a slave. Wonderful, isn’t it? In those 2 brief sentences, Drake’s juxtaposed two completely opposing images, and even though you don’t know the context they’re in, he still makes it sound deeply consequential. That’s a gift. I don’t believe in God, I don’t believe in a higher power beyond the human mind, but I’m at a loss to explain where that sort of musical skill comes from, as surely no training can provide it.
Where I’d say that this album stands out above Pink Moon in fact is the variety on offer here.Way To Blue may be the best example of this, as it’s an extraordinary combination of Drake singing over an absolute wall of strings, which provide the sort of backing music that you’d expect to hear at your funeral. I’ve already mentioned Drake’s ability as a lyricist and as a guitarist, but Way To Blue may be the best example on this album of his actual singing voice. In the absence of any other accompaniment beyond the drama given by a string section, Drake is forced to carry the song entirely by himself, and he does it in such an outstandingly evocative way that the question which immediately crosses the listener’s mind is how he managed to survive to make two more albums, given the inner conflict which seems so evident here. People often talk of making art as a form of self-therapy, as an alternative to seeing a psychiatrist to talk about how you remember Daddy hiding your teddy bear or something like that. Although Drake’s psychological problems got worse towards the end of his life, he had always suffered from depression. The bleakness of his outlook is reflected not only in his lyrics (although verses such as
When the day is done
Hope so much your race will be all run
Then you find you jumped the gun
Have to go back where you began
When the day is done.
make Leonard Cohen look like a delightfully well adjusted individual), but also through all of the elements to his music discussed so far, whether it’s his voice, his guitar playing, or a combination of everything. It’s not a painful listen at all, in fact it’s deeply relaxing, but there’s that unease at the heart of the album, like a man is looking forward to see his death, and just sitting back to wait for it to happen.
Although pretty much every song here could get a mention as being an album highlight, one that really stands out is Cello Song. Featuring the return of the soft drumming, Drake’s guitar work is at its best here again, creating a wistfully intimate atmosphere from the beginning, which is then carried on throughout the near 5 minutes of the song. While Cello Song is arguably the best Nick Drake song which absolutely epitomises his sound, The Thoughts Of Mary Jane is another song which stands out even on this album, largely as a consequence of a single flute, constantly present throughout the whole song, adding a layer of supernatural beauty to the song that 99% of musicians who’ve walked this planet simply couldn’t equal. Now I think of it, The Thoughts Of Mary Jane is quite possibly Drake’s best song. At less than 3 minutes, it’s small enough to be listened to again and again, and has enough elements, in the flute, string section, Drake’s voice, and stunningly oblique lyrics, to keep you listening every time.
Since I’ve set a limit for myself of less than 2 sides of paper for my reviews these days, looking at individual songs is going to have to end there. Well, apart from Man In A Shed, which you’re going to have to look at yourself (think upbeat piano meets semi-ironic love song) that is. It’s hard knowing how to rate Drake’s back catalogue though. Due to producing a mere three albums, he’s probably the only artist who I can honestly say never made anything but a 5 star album. That feels faintly ridiculous, but in all honesty, so does the whole Nick Drake story. How a talent so prodigious could be so shy as to basically never play live shows can be nothing but a cruel joke of fate, made yet worse by the fact that this Drake was dead before he was 27. That’s what annoys me most about cliché. The fact that when the truly remarkable does happen, people instinctively distrust accounts of it, putting rumours of the extraordinary down to human nature to exaggerate. Thankfully as Nick Drake’s popularity grows, it seems that we’ve finally realised what we missed during his lifetime, that he was pretty much one of a kind. As Drake himself sings on Fruit Tree,
Don’t you worry
They’ll stand and stare when you’re gone.
It would be beyond arrogance for me even to insinuate that I could summarise Drake’s life better than the man himself did, other than to point out that he managed it before he was even dead.
From BBC Music
Twenty years ago Nick Drake was a distinctly word-of-mouth proposition whose slim back catalogue was shared by a select few. Nowadays, thanks to championing by the likes of Paul Weller, as well as a series of books and TV and radio documentaries (cf: Radio 2’s effort hosted by Brad Pitt!), Nick’s a household name. This may account for the recent avalanche of ‘sensitive’ singer songwriters but it’s hard not to be still floored by the beauty of his first album.
Discovered by Fairport Convention’s Ashley Hutchings and signed to Joe Boyd’s Witchseason production company Drake was pigeonholed as a ‘folk’ artist. Five Leaves Left, recorded on a shoestring in 1969, boasted a cast of players who had paid their dues forging the new genre of folk rock (ie: Fairport’s Richard Thompson and Pentangle’s Danny Thompson); but this was a whole different kettle of
Englishness, with more than a hint of jazz about it. Sung in the semi-whispered tones that betrayed no hint of ersatz rurality, these cryptic songs of reflection and emotional ‘otherness’ were propelled by the one thing that had attracted Boyd to Drake: His idiosyncratic open-tuned picking style “Cello Song”.
Drake is often painted as a retiring man, yet he was often extremely vocal over his muse. He and Boyd initially fought over Drake’s wish for a stripped back approach (which he eventually found on his last masterpiece, Pink Moon). In the end old college friend, Robert Kirby, provided orchestration that beautifully captured the yearning ‘autumnal’ element in the songs “Way To Blue” and “Day Is Done”.
What’s more, the string arrangement by Harry Robinson on “River Man” – possibly Drake’s finest song – succinctly turned his Delius-meets-folk-jazz opus into something that no one had ever heard before. It’s a key text for Drake fans, containing the return to nature matched against the infidelities of city life: A theme he would return to again and again, while the album title’s sly reference to smoker’s delights (as well as “Thoughts Of Mary Jane”) showed that Drake was no stranger to the standard musician’s indulgences.
Widely ignored upon its release, with hindsight it’s easy to see how such ignorance conspired to make Drake a bitter man. Yet ultimately all we can do is bask in the unique vision captured here and be grateful that, for a short period, Nick Drake was able to share it with us all.