Like Tim Buckley, Nick Drake has, in recent years, reached a level of popularity far in excess of anything he achieved during his brief lifetime. This posthumous collection of leftovers, alternate versions and new arrangements – a sort of updated, stand-alone version of the additional disc in the Fruit Tree collected-works box – is a model of how to treat a lost legend, a fourth album fit to stand alongside the three “official” Nick Drake albums. This is largely thanks to the diligence of the arranger Robert Kirby, who has unearthed early recordings from their time together at Cambridge, and added new orchestral arrangements to some tracks – most effectively on “Time of No Reply”, to which the orchestration adds a new depth and colour, and a whole new context. Curiously, the same impact is achieved by the absence of orchestration on a newly discovered take of “River Man” featuring just the dark, swirling depths of Drake’s precise finger-style guitar picking. Along with the only recently discove
Like Tim Buckley, Nick Drake has, in recent years, reached a level of popularity far in excess of anything he achieved during his brief lifetime. This posthumous collection of leftovers, alternate versions and new arrangements – a sort of updated, stand-alone version of the additional disc in the Fruit Tree collected-works box – is a model of how to treat a lost legend, a fourth album fit to stand alongside the three “official” Nick Drake albums. This is largely thanks to the diligence of the arranger Robert Kirby, who has unearthed early recordings from their time together at Cambridge, and added new orchestral arrangements to some tracks – most effectively on “Time of No Reply”, to which the orchestration adds a new depth and colour, and a whole new context. Curiously, the same impact is achieved by the absence of orchestration on a newly discovered take of “River Man” featuring just the dark, swirling depths of Drake’s precise finger-style guitar picking. Along with the only recently discovered “Tow the Line”, the album includes properly mixed versions of Drake’s final four recordings, “Voices”, “Hanging on a Star”, “Black Eyed Dog” and “Rider on the Wheel”, which offer clear indications of Drake’s world-weary state at the time: “But take it fast or take it slow/ I must keep up a show/ For the rider on the wheel.”
From BBC Music
The announcement of the discovery of a new Nick Drake song, found at the end of a tape reel and forgotten for over 20 years, has been met with the enthusiasm normally reserved for the earthly materialisation of minor deities.
Leaving aside the merits of the rest of this new compilation of rarities, previously unreleased material and occasional picks from Drake’s small but perfectly formed canon, it’s ”Tow The Line” which will prove the most irresistible lure to his vociferous and evangelical fan base.Possibly the last song he ever recorded, it mines a similar vein to the other songs taped shortly before his death. Sparse and direct, its resigned tone is enhanced by an insistent guitar and the quiet poignancy of Drake’s vocal.
Whether its worth the price of admission alone depends on your devotion to the Cult of Drake, but certainly there’s other startling material on offer, including a version of ”Three Hours” in which Nick is accompanied by future Traffic percussionist Reebop Kwaakhu Baah and an unknown flautist. There’s also a solo rendition of ”River Man” dating from 1968 and recorded in a Cambridge college bedroom by Drake’s friend and future arranger Robert Kirby. Shorn of its string arrangement, Drake’s incredible guitar playing and effortless melodic sense are all the more apparent.
Less effective is the re-arrangement of ”I Was Made To Love Magic”, ditching Richard Hewson’s dire string arrangement heard on the posthumous Time of No Reply album and replacing it with Kirby’s original charts. Whatever the ethics of such posthumous tinkering, its just not a particularly great song.
The addition of strings to ”Time Of No Reply” itself is more successful, and at least benefits from the presence of Drakes intricate guitar filigree, but the effect remains slightly akin to coming home and finding someones redecorated your favourite room without asking you. That said, Kirby’s arrangements remain benchmarks of sensitivity.
More welcome are remixed versions of Drake’s other final recordings, including a previously unreleased version of ”Hanging OnA Star”. Impassioned and austere, they retain their gripping allure, although sensitive listeners may find ”Black Eyed Dog”’s creeping foreboding slightly too harrowing in the light of Drake’s subsequent fate.
One wonders what would have happened had Drake followed his own advice, overcome his demons and towed the line of contemporary record industry mores; interviews, tours, appearances on Whistle Test.This has led some critics to argue that Drake’s tragic end lends his music a gravitas it doesn’t always deserve.
Certainly, Drake’s death has frozen his reputation in aspic -the eternal youth, gilded with romantic allure; a Chatterton for our time. However, none of this should diminish the achievement of his music, which continues to retain its honest and beguiling power despite this compilation’s admittedly minor faults.
The backside of Nick Drake’s headstone, wedged deep into the earth of Tanworth-in-Arden’s parish church graveyard, reads: “Now we rise and we are everywhere.” The words were penned by Drake in 1974; 30 years later, they seem jarringly prophetic.
Like nearly all prematurely buried cult figures, Nick Drake is reinvented each time he is rediscovered. In 2000, the sheepish, astral musings of “Pink Moon” became synonymous with backing a Cabrio convertible out of a house party, sparking an unlikely boost in record sales and propelling Pink Moon towards platinum status nearly 26 years after Drake’s death. But with each well-intentioned revival of interest, Nick Drake slips further and further out of reach, hopelessly martyred and codified, superceded and consumed by his own tragic context. Nick Drake has become: the 26-year-old prophet, the diffident enigma, the tortured precursor to Kurt Cobain, the fallen hero, the folksinger-as-folksymbol, the self-sacrificing patron saint of lonely, disaffected teenagers– the One who died for our sins.
Even now, being indoctrinated into the cult of Drake is stupidly easy. Line the unbearably poetic circumstances of Drake’s death (swallowing a fatal handful of anti-depressants, either deliberately or by accident) against the soft melancholy of his tiny canon, and witness a very specific kind of bedroom deity being birthed: Drake’s three proper studio records form a bulletproof triumvirate, synergizing to create an impossibly satisfying (and telling) arc, riddled with prescient pull-quotes and expectedly dynamic emotions. Given the irrefutable magnificence of what he left behind, it’s always seemed perfectly logical to assume that every single thing Nick Drake ever did should be worth piles of attention. And really, who wants to know if it’s not?
Thus, it’s only appropriate to approach each new Drake compilation with a bit of honest trepidation, and to be anxious about the sullying of an otherwise pristine recording career. Nick Drake wrote, recorded, and released three records between 1968 and his mysterious death in 1974, but the subsequent permutation of capitalistic yearning and superfan desperation saw Drake’s discography significantly (and mercilessly) puffed up by a handful of dubious posthumous releases. Some of these efforts have been worthwhile (the excellent Time of No Reply, which rounded out the first reissue of the Fruit Tree box, and Heaven Is a Wildflower, both released in 1986), some renegade (the widely distributed Tanworth-in-Arden Home Recordings and Second Grace) and some completely superfluous (1994’s sloppy Way to Blue, which unapologetically regurgitates, unchanged, ten of Heaven Is a Wildflower’s fourteen tracks). In 1994, Drake’s pioneering producer, Joe Boyd, promised Mojo: “Everything releasable has been released.”
Compiled by engineer John Wood and former roommate Robert Kirby, Made to Love Magic is a footnote, a hiccup, a voyeuristic peepshow. It is not a revelation. Completists will revel in the resuscitation of rare/unheard tracks, including two Cambridge-era dorm demos (“Mayfair”, “River Man”), outtakes from the Five Leaves Left sessions (“Joey”, “Clothes of Sand”), remastered stereo versions of the mono mixes that appeared on Time of No Reply (“Rider on the Wheel”, “Black-Eyed Dog”, “Hanging on a Star”), two tracks with strings re-orchestrated and re-recorded by Kirby (“I Was Made to Love Magic”, “Time of No Reply”), an early rendition of “Three Hours” (with Drake backed by an anonymous flautist and percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah, later of Can and Traffic), and even causal fans will be anxious to hear the recently discovered Drake original, “Tow the Line.” Recorded just four months before Drake’s death, “Tow the Line” has been loudly touted as the last song Drake ever committed to tape, and his pale, listless vocals do little to detract from the artist-on-the-edge theatrics so implicit in that tag– the song would fit neatly on Pink Moon, its frail lyrics and stark strums easily maintaining the fatalistic mood of Drake’s final record.
“Tow the Line” may be Made to Love Magic’s big selling point, but it’s hardly the only attraction: Robert Kirby’s sprawling new string arrangement on the title track, while conceptually awkward (and vaguely disingenuous), proves a marked improvement over the maudlin squealings available on previous versions. Still, Kirby can do little to stop “I Was Made to Love Magic” from sounding like a ridiculous, fawning homage to Walt Disney, all maudlin, unconvincing swoons and gooey swells, with Drake goofily crooning the song’s title.
Despite the best intentions of its creators, Made to Love Magic feels disjointed and weird, and even the most mundane of improvements somehow still seem contrived– the new, stereo mix of “Black Eyed Dog” shatters the stark precariousness of the original, wherein Drake, barely singing, howled blankly: “I’m growing old/ And I don’t wanna know/ I’m growing old/ And I wanna go home.” Bolstered by a thick and ominous slathering of tape hiss, the bootleg version of “Black Eyed Dog” violently suggested, however inadvertently, that Drake might not make it all the way through the song– and that tension only ever added to its morose appeal. In some ways, Made to Love Magic nobly attempts to strip Drake of his signifiers, and to cut him loose from his cross. But broadcasting Drake’s comparably mediocre drippings won’t alter his deification, at least not significantly. All it really does is muddy up the water a bit.
Precious. Tragic. Beautiful. Sensitive. Delicate. Doomed. These are some of the words that people use about Nick Drake, born in Rangoon, died in Tamworth-In-Arden. Drake knew he was going to sell more records when he was dead than he did while he was alive. So well, in fact, that he wrote a song about this very certainty on his first album, and he called it “Fruit Tree”. The lyrics could be a gospel for how his myth has slowly prospered over the last thirty years; “fame is but a fruit tree, so very unsound / It can never flourish till it’s stalk is in the ground / … safe in your place deep in the earth / That’s when they’ll really know what you were really worth”. As rock ’n’ roll myth-making goes, it’s rather prescient. Nick Drake knew he was too fragile for the world he lived in, knew that, because of the way he did what he did, people would find it hard to love his work knowing that he was a man, and all too easy to love his work knowing that he was a ghost.
It’s all bunkum, of course. Nick Drake isn’t some Platonic essence of the doomed romantic hero. He’s a man who made some records and then died in sad circumstances, a handful of anti-depressants and a headache that wouldn’t go away and a failed and failing career as a folk singer taunting him while lesser talents shone, adding up to a hellish, never-ending night of insomnia. Nick Drake didn’t take Tryptizol because he was depressed; he took it because he couldn’t sleep. Rock ‘n’ roll myth-making is just another way to sell a product, whether you’re throwing paint over the car owned by your record label boss, pretending to be managed by some shadowy svengali, or hiding your homosexuality from your teenage fans. Myth is important in music, but not because it adds wonder or magic or authenticity to an artist or to a body of work. Myth is important to music because it teaches us how much we are still driven by a need to be told stories, whether they be true or not.
My English teacher lent me Way To Blue, An Introduction To Nick Drake when I was a callow, occasionally drug-addled sixteen year old, high on The Beatles, The Verve and The Stone Roses. He said it would be like nothing I’d ever heard before. In return I lent him Screamadelica. I said it would be like nothing he’d ever heard before. We were both right. And it seemed like a fair swap. At university some years later I picked up the Fruit Tree box set, supposedly containing everything Nick Drake had ever recorded, the three studio albums (Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon) and the outtakes and rareties collection Time Of No Reply. It was one of those things you buy because you feel you ought to own it. Unlike The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions however, I still do.
Things people neglect to mention about Nick Drake; he was very tall, and had incredibly strong fingers—to play guitar that fast, that powerfully, with such odd tunings, he had to have strong fingers. He was a sarcastic devil—“Poor Boy”, a jazzy number from Bryter Layter, openly mocks his status as a poster-boy for sensitive British folk music. He was a horny devil—“Hazey Jane 1” presents stark images of sexual jealousy, asking a lover if she “is just riding a new man / Looks a little like me”. He was cruel—at school with Chris De Burgh he supposedly refused to let the diminutive “Lady In Red” singer join his band because he was “too short”. Nick Drake wrote as many songs about how much he loved to smoke cigarettes as he did explicitly about depression. (One apiece; “Been Smoking Too Long” and “Black Eyed Dog”.) Yet no one talks about Nick Drake as being “that folk singer who liked a fag”. The myth surrounding Nick Drake exists as much because people erroneously believe that slow, quiet and acoustic = sad, and fast, loud and electric = happy. “Northern Sky” is not sad; it’s beautiful. “Cello Song” is not sad; it’s strange. Most of his songs are not sad or depressing in the way that Philip Larkin is sad and depressing. Most of his songs are uplifting and beautiful in the way that Wordsworth is uplifting and beautiful.
The value of I Was Made To Love Magic depends on how much you buy into the myth of Nick Drake the tragic, romantic figure who was too beautiful to last, whether you are as excited by the prospect of a new photo of Nick Drake as you are by the prospect of a new song (and there is only one new song). There are long-thought-lost string arrangements by Robert Kirby, restored to some songs. The four ‘last session’ tracks from Time Of No Reply are remixed into stereo, the wisdom and worth of which is debatable; “Black Eyed Dog” certainly suffers having it’s stark, frightening edge, previously seared by the incongruously joyous guitar break halfway through, blunted by stereophonic clarity. He no longer sounds as if he is crying as he enunciates the words. There is an early version of “Three Hours” featuring Rebob Kwaku Baah, who would later act as percussionist with Can, but sadly the lines between Folk, Krautrock and Afrobeat are left unblurred. And of course there is the new song, “Tow The Line”, which can best be described as ‘sturdy’ and ‘Pink Moonish’. There is a reason why some things remain rare, why some things are deemed not fit enough to be anything more than outtakes.
Amazon user reviews reveal the usual Nick Drake fan hyperbole; this new release is “a MUST HAVE” and “a towering achievement”, “a good place to start” even. I long since gave away my own copy of the Way To Blue compilation to a girlfriend, but it is telling that whenever I dip into Fruit Tree it is to visit those songs that Way To Blue and my English teacher introduced me to. I see I Was Made To Love Magic as nothing more than another morbid, myth-building curio, further proof that Nick Drake was right all along about how he would be treated.