A popular way to hear Nick Drake’s music is as a protracted suicide note, each song leading to the same incontrovertible conclusion. You don’t have look very far in his lyrics to find quotable lines pointing the way to tragedy; just listen to “Fruit Tree”, from his 1969 debut Five Leaves Left, or “Parasite”, an early song recorded for his 1972 swan song Pink Moon. But listeners also tend to search for foreboding insight within ill-fated songwriters’ catalogs, and the knowledge of Drake’s early death doesn’t intensify or justify whatever emotions exist in the music. The fact that he died may be the best-known aspect of his life, but his songs don’t need that tragedy to convey sadness, isolation, confusion, disappointment, and wonder– all of which may have contributed to his overdose of anti-depressants in 1974, whether accidental or not.
Fruit Tree, an incomplete reissue of a defining compilation, touches on the darker aspects of Drake’s music, but to avoid romanticizing his doomed life, the 3xCD/1xDVD set couches it in a very close, often very technical reading of his songs. The set was first released in England five years after Drake’s death and in America in 1986, and has been repackaged in various permutations since then. Historically, the set has been anchored by Drake’s three studio albums, the rarities collection Time of No Reply (which was released separately in 1986), and extensive liner notes, with a black-and-white cover depicting Drake on an empty sidewalk, his overcoat blowing in the wind. This new American version drops Time of No Reply (a curious and almost criminal omission) but replaces it with new and exhaustive liner notes, a DVD containing Jeroen Berkvens’ 1999 documentary A Skin Too Few, and a new cover showing a dark-green tree against a northern-sky-blue background.
While far from complete, Fruit Tree is nevertheless the most comprehensive Drake compilation available and the best introduction to the singer-songwriter. Its remastering renders obsolete your copies of his uniformly superb studio albums (and should have done the same to any of his rarities collections like Time of No Reply or Made to Love Magic). The absence of non-album tracks from Time of No Reply may make Fruit Tree stronger song for song, but it still gives the sense of an incomplete picture.
The new liner notes and Berkvens’ elegiac film go to great lengths to fill in this portrait, discussing Drake’s life and his death but generally avoiding easy mythmaking. A Skin Too Few emphasizes Drake’s essential unknowability: He was never a public figure, so we have no common memory of him, as we have for other dead celebrities. In fact, so little was known about him that every detail of his life, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, has been parsed for significance. And he died so long ago– 33 years ago this month, to be exact– that we have lost many people who were close to him, leaving us with the testimony of a very few.
A Skin Too Few offers no interviews with Drake and no performance footage, which are typically the bedrock of rock documentaries; Drake gave no interviews and very rarely performed publicly. His legacy is analog. At the center of this film, and of that legacy, is an absence, which Berkvens expresses visually. He situates Drake’s songs in landscapes that initially appear as still lifes, but eventually humanity invades the frame in the form of a train or a boy on a bicycle or two professors greeting each other. The suggestion is that these places– his childhood room, his university quad, London alleyways– informed Drake’s music as strongly as his internal landscape did. It’s a simple, valid point that gives a fuller idea of the artist by taking the mortal burden off of his shoulders, at least in part.
As a textual complement to Berkvens’ film, the new liner notes feature commentary from four individuals who knew Drake well: Robin Frederick, a music journalist, musician, and friend; Joe Boyd, who produced Five Leaves Left and 1970’s Bryter Layter; Robert Kirby, who composed for Drake; and John Wood, who engineered all of Drake’s albums. Together, they present a very useful alternative to the suicide-note reading of these albums– a technical approach– by discussing his songwriting, composing, and guitar playing in fine detail. Of “Way to Blue”, Frederick observes, “The heart of the song is the resolving of the suspended fourth to the major third.” Others point to his use of cluster chords on “River Man” and “Place to Be”, the uncommon tunings on Pink Moon, and the unusual time signatures on almost every song. They also explain how these elements interact and how Drake resolves them in unexpected ways.
It’s rarely mentioned when discussing Drake, but he was an exceptional guitarist, able to strum out intricate rhythms on low strings while picking distinctive melodies on high. He draws from milonga rhythms for “The Thoughts of Mary Jane”, Mose Allison jazz-blues for “Man in a Shed”, and Stan Getz for “Poor Boy”. On Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter, Boyd, Kirby, and Wood complement his guitarwork with eccentric arrangements, creating a swirl of strings and reed instruments around him. By contrast, Pink Moon, featuring Drake alone, is a guitar album– by necessity, sure, but what makes the collection so fascinating is how he was able to use his guitar both to evoke the loneliness of a solo musician (especially this solo musician) and to create the effect of two or sometimes even three instruments at once, studied in a variety of tones and styles. Despite its starkness, for this reason Pink Moon may be his richest album.
That the liner notes can point this out without alienating lay readers with too much technical language is surely an accomplishment, but then again lay readers have been listening to and discussing these albums for years now, at least since 2000, when Volkswagen used “Pink Moon” in its Cabriolet commercial. Perhaps those same listeners didn’t pick up on the cluster chords and 5/4 time signatures, but they no doubt felt their effect. The 31 tracks on these three albums evoke the uncertainty of life, a strong wonder at the world, and an equally intense despair as clearly and eloquently through the music as through the words. Drake remains a mysterious figure, so well known popularly yet completely unknown personally; Fruit Tree presents a timid man but a bold artist. As someone who expressed himself wholly through music, Drake understood that his music must be wholly expressive.
Nick Drake’s death—at age 26, from an antidepressant overdose—took away the most bewitching and original singer-songwriter of Britain’s folk-rock boom, an alchemist who used jazz, blues and even classical touchstones to conjure exquisite pastoral pop. While alive, he sold diddly, but since a resurgent ’90s, when his records were championed in Volkswagen ads and chill-out rooms, he has presided as the patron saint of a trendy folk scene, where young men with Grizzly Adams beards get busy with zithers and crumhorns.
From the beginning, Drake sounded as if he was slipping away. His debut album, 1969’s Five Leaves Left, is his most conventionally “folky,” but it carried a voice like a deathbed exhalation, and sophisticated string arrangements by Robert Kirby only intensified the mood of unearthly melancholy.
Drake wouldn’t tour—he hated vulgar audiences with their beer drinking and chatter—so his work became the proverbial tree falling in a forest. Bryter Layter, his follow-up, was attention-seeking by his standards. There were drums, pianos, an air of slightly forced jollity disguising lyrics of increasing weariness and alienation. It’s a dazzling, multi-hued masterpiece, but Nigel Waymouth’s unsettling cover photo, with Drake hunched and emaciated, his face in shadow, proved prescient.
Commercial failure ate at Drake, and depression weighed him down. He moved back in with his parents and stared at the walls. In late 1971, he left a tape at Island Records’ reception desk—it was his final album. Gripping and urgent, Pink Moon eschewed sweetening adornments. It was just Drake, his guitar playing harder, less elegant than before and in his voice a kind of hollow, drugged laugh at the world. On the title track, he sings “pink, pink, pink, pink, pink” lower and lower until, way south of his comfortable register, he seems merely to groan. “I’ve got no more songs,” he told his sister Gabrielle, and by Christmas 1974 he was dead.
Played back-to-back, these records tell a transfixing tale, but what does the Fruit Tree box, which complies them, add? In a previous incarnation, it featured outtakes and demos, supplanted here by a DVD documentary—languidly paced and well shot, with an affecting interview with Gabrielle Drake confirming her brother’s debt to his mother, another fragile personality who wrote shatteringly sad songs remarkable for their prewar, parlor-piano style.
Amid a generation of wannabe mystics and self-styled romantics, Drake was the real thing—alienated by this life, haunted by the next. The few existing photos of him feature the same handsome, inscrutable gaze and Mona Lisa smile. Would he be glad the modern world has caught up with him at last? Probably not.