“Nick was in some strange way out of time. When you were with him, you always had a sad feeling of him being born in the wrong century. If he would have lived in the 17th century, at the Elizabethan Court, together with composers like Dowland or William Byrd, he would have been alright. Nick was elegant, honest, a lost romantic — and at the same time so cool. In brief: the perfect Elizabethan.”
— Robert Kirby, arranger, and friend of Nick Drake)
Nick Drake is the classic example of the tortured rock ‘n’ roll poet who wasn’t appreciated in his own time and died far too young. A modern day version of the 19th century poet Keats, Drake offered a humble view of the world seen through his own eyes, one of simple, heartbreaking beauty, but chronic depression overwhelmed him, and whether his death at the age of 26 from an overdose of his antidepressant medication was intentional or not, it only adds to the mystique, something that almost always ensures a cult following in the years to come (see Jeff Buckley for a more recent example). The three studio albums Drake recorded between 1969 and 1972 were commercial busts during his lifetime, but in the years that have passed, his fanbase has grown exponentially. His popularity has surged especially in recent years; younger artists like Belle & Sebastian and Mojave 3 wouldn’t be around if not for Nick Drake, and a certain automobile manufacturer used one of Drake’s most famous songs in an advertising campaign, to great effect.
Drake’s first two albums, 1969’s Five Leaves Left and 1970’s Bryter Later, were beautiful, lushly produced records, full of florid songs that were exquisitely recorded, with Drake sounding like a more introspective version of Donovan. However, the albums did not sell well, which fueled Drake’s growing depression. In 1971, after visits with psychiatrists, medication, some extended periods of inactivity, and worst of all, no new songs to speak of, he left his home in London for Spain. When he returned, he contacted producer John Wood, saying he wanted to record a new album. When they met at a studio that night at midnight, Drake sat down, and played his eleven new songs in sequence, in one sitting. A few days later, the album was finished, and that record, entitled Pink Moon, would go on to rank as Drake’s masterpiece.
One of the greatest “dark night of the soul” albums in the history of pop music, Pink Moon is astonishingly short, 28 and a half minutes, to be exact, and is one of the most musically stripped-down and emotionally naked albums ever recorded. Just Drake’s acoustic guitar, his entrancing, velvety voice, and some foreboding, gutwrenching lyrics that only hint at his state of mind at the time. That blend of simple, honest beauty with a hint of dread is perfectly exemplified on the album’s title track which serves as the opener. Over his gentle, yet insistently strummed guitar and minimal, plaintive piano notes (that tiny bit of piano was the only overdub on the entire album), Drake lays all his cards on the table, singing, “Saw it written and I saw it say/Pink moon is on its way/And none of you stand so tall/Pink moon gonna get ye all.”
The rest of the album is just as straightforward. “Place to Be” is still sad enough to melt the hearts of female college English majors even today, but is emotional without getting too weepy, poetic without becoming pretentious (“Now I’m weaker than the palest blue/Oh, so weak in this need for you”). The instrumental “Horn” is so gorgeous, Drake doesn’t need words to convey what he’s feeling, while the devastating “Know” needs just four simple lines to bring tears to your eyes (“Know that I love you/Know I don’t care/Know that I see you/Know I’m not there”). Drake’s deft guitar playing shines on “Free Ride”, a song with one of the more memorable pop hooks on the album. Meanwhile, “Things Behind the Sun” offers words of warning over a pastoral melody: “Don’t be too wise/For down below they never grow/They’re always tired and charms are hired/From out of their eyes.”
Drake’s naked honesty is at its most tortured on “Parasite”, in which Drake sings one of the most gorgeously miserable, vivid depictions of the sensitive, self-loathing outcast. He plucks his guitar strings mournfully, deliberately, as he sings verses that are almost uncomfortably blunt: “Changing a rope for a size too small/People all get hung.” When he delivers the song’s payoff line, it’s soul-crushing: “Take a look you may see me in the dirt/For I am the parasite who hangs from your skirt.”
As Pink Moon closes with the hopeful strains of “From the Morning”, it’s like seeing the first rays of sunlight glow on the horizon after the saddest night of your life, as Drake sings, almost optimistically, “So look see the days/The endless colored ways/And go play the game you learnt/From the morning.” Unfortunately, Drake saw no way out of his depression, and two years later, he was dead. Pink Moon is the sound of a tremendously gifted artist making one last, desperate stab at a creative act, and the record he has left behind is something special. It may not have the best songs of his career (such as Five Leaves Left’s “Cello Song” and Bryter Later’s “Northern Sky”), but it’s easily his greatest album as a whole. Drake may be long gone, but as Keats once wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:/Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness.” Everyone needs this album in their CD collections for those dark, lonesome nights.
After two albums of tastefully orchestrated folk-pop, albeit some of the least demonstrative and most affecting around, Drake chose a radical change for what turned out to be his final album. Not even half-an-hour long, with 11 short songs and no more — he famously remarked at the time that he simply had no more to record — Pink Moon more than anything else is the record that made Drake the cult figure he remains. Specifically, Pink Moon is the bleakest of them all; that the likes of Belle and Sebastian are fans of Drake may be clear enough, but it’s doubtful they could ever achieve the calm, focused anguish of this album, as harrowing as it is attractive.
No side musicians or outside performers help this time around — it’s simply Drake and Drake alone on vocals, acoustic guitar, and a bit of piano, recorded by regular producer Joe Boyd but otherwise untouched by anyone else. The lead-off title track was eventually used in a Volkswagen commercial nearly 30 years later, giving him another renewed burst of appreciation — one of life’s many ironies, in that such an affecting song, Drake’s softly keened singing and gentle strumming, could turn up in such a strange context.
The remainder of the album follows the same general path, with Drake’s elegant melancholia avoiding sounding pretentious in the least thanks to his continued embrace of simple, tender vocalizing. Meanwhile, the sheer majesty of his guitar playing — consider the opening notes of “Road” or “Parasite” — makes for a breathless wonder to behold. If anyone needs confirmation as to why artists like Mark Eitzel, Elliot Smith, Lou Barlow, or Robert Smith hold Drake close to their hearts, it’s all here, still as beautiful as the day it was released.
Nick Drake has been saddled with the kind of (death) “cult” reputation that lends itself to fervent fan-kid obsession (I know, I’ve been there) by some, much to the annoyance of others. Unfortunately for the poor bloke, like Jeff Buckley, and more recently Elliott Smith, his premature passing led marketing men and music journalists to focus on his sensitive, dark, quiet “ethereal” (a word surely created for lazy reviewers) side. This is unfortunate, as, having bought the hype when I was a particularly post-obnoxious seventeen year old (“there’s got to be something more…” etc), a recent re-listening to the man’s back catalogue reveals a body of work intact with some fantastically plaintative, dry humored, and mute-harrowing moments.
Pink Moon was recorded over a few days with producer John Wood prior to its February 1972 release date. It’s a brief record (twenty eight minutes), mainly focusing on a mal-tuned acoustic guitar and vocals. There’s always been a lot of hyperbole over the record (I recall reading about it in an NME “most depressing albums ever” feature around 2000) often focusing on its bleakness. I suppose it’s inevitable given that this was the last non-posthumous Nick Drake album, with a more lo-fi nature than its older siblings and his continued relative obscurity. Pink Moon does feature the occasional sparse message, (“Know” features only the lines: “Know that I love you / Know I don’t care / Know that I see you / Know I’m not there”), but the album offers so much more than that. The album’s opening title track is lyrically simplistic and instrumentally nocturnal, but more in a relaxed, family bonfires and pumpkins with funny faces style. The piano almost sends mist through the stereo. It’s an atmosphere that permeates the next two songs before “Which Will” changes tack. The lyrics are so simplistic one can’t possibly quote them in context. It could be about breakups, breakdowns, hope or ambivalence. While not wishing to mistakenly echo Bill Hicks’ Rodney King satire, it depends on how you listen to it.
“Horn” is a really beautiful, poignant instrumental. It wouldn’t be out of place on Four Tet’s Pause. “Things Behind the Sun” bends from the franticly sinister to the carefree. The aforementioned “Know” feature’s the four lines above, but over a surreal background juxtaposing Drake’s sighs with an off-kilter guitar line more reminiscent of The Fall’s Rough Trade years than Damien Rice. In all fairness to the publicists, “Parasite” is a rather bleak song. It’s also one of my favorite songs of all time. Whether Drake is “changing a rope for a size too small”, or “lifting the mask from a local clown” and “feeling down like him,” I’m smiling all the way. There’s a touch of surreal cynicism on “Free Ride,” seeing through “all of the pictures that you keep on the wall…all of the people that will come to the ball.” However it seems more indicative of somebody at the back of the room laughing at the people who can’t quite tell why they’re dancing than someone who deserves a carefully written biography. “Harvest Breed” is a fantastic hangover tune, particularly when backed by a color-free sky. “From The Morning” closes things with some renewed vigor, as people “rise from the ground.” It’s a Beatles tune for those of us who don’t want to blow out the candles.
Before I was asked to write this review I hadn’t listened to Pink Moon as a whole in a long time. It’s still my favorite Nick Drake album, and one of the best of its era. Ignore the hyperbole and press play.
Nick Drake was an unknown solider in the 1970s. Blending lush orchestrations with a bluntly emotional voice, his music would although at the time not become popular, grow to be some of the most influential music of the haven that the 70’s were for originality. Singer/Songwriters are pretty universally enjoyed; I mean who doesn’t like “Flake” by Jack Johnson or “Say Yes” by Elliott Smith. Usually you’ll find that huge Cryptopsy/Spiral Architect fan talking about how when ever he needs to calm down he throws on Damien Rice’s “O”. Well, most of these artists owe their ideas to Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”. Sitting next to Talk Talk’s “Laughing Stock” as one of the most emotionally barren and gorgeous sounding records of all time, Pink Moon encompasses the feelings of despair and isolation so effortlessly it’s a wonder it isn’t more widely respected and known than it is. Although I’m a big fan of the acoustic meanderings of most singer/songwriters, I do find myself usually becoming bored with the sheer playing inability in most of these artists, but with Nick Drake this problem is nowhere to be found. His unique and technical ability behind a guitar is astounding and highly compliments his very ethereal vocals. While some people tend to dwell on the suicide he supposedly committed, I try to remember Nick Drake not for the actions he transpired, but for the wonderful timeless music he created.
“Pink Moon” has a cast of ten very similar songs. All of the songs are formed between only two instruments, Nick’s guitar and vocals, except for the title track which features some haunting piano melodies. Most of the songs are done in a way that makes them mildly upbeat and beautiful, but the occasional gloomy dark song is experimented with on the album in the form of “Things Behind the Sun” and “Parasite”. While the lyrical messages behind most of the songs are typically depressing affairs, this topic only seems to soak through into the actual musical half of the album in the two dark songs. “Pink Moon” is mostly concentrated in the genre of Folk with most of the songs blending together stylistically, but tracks like “Know” which is based around an extremely simple guitar line and the short interlude “Horn” help make the album more interesting and seem less repetitive. Nick’s voice is very unique in itself due to the fact it has a deep yet very soothing, beautiful sound. Where as most singer/songwriters reach their moments of beauty with the falsetto sound, Nick like Jeff Buckley on his album “Grace” is able to exude emotion in various ranges of his voice, which also helps establish striking differences in the ten tracks on this album. All in all, the tracks on this album are similar yet different, but always rewarding. Few tracks stand out, because they are all excellent by my personal favorite would have to be “Things Behind the Sun” just because of how elegantly depressing it is. Every song can serve the dual purpose of either being, light and relaxing, or tense and emotional depending on how the listener is relating to it.
“Pink Moon” is a simple album made by a talented man that any musician or music listener should enjoy. The accessibility to this album is simple, because it is always representing an emotion or feeling that anyone can relate too. While the album does have some depressing undertones, like most popular music Nick Drake is able to make a musically upbeat and happy sounding song out of what were most likely some of his darkest feelings. This ability to make an accessible, moving piece that is both filled with despair and hopefulness is what makes “Pink Moon” such an everlasting and excellent piece of work. It’s really an album anyone can pick up and really enjoy whether you are a metal, rap, or indie fan and that is where the perfection lies in it.