I was very disappointed in this book – and while some of that disappointment is with the style of writing Mr. Humphries employs here, there’s more to it than that.
Writing a biography is a tricky proposition at best. In the case of an artist like Nick Drake – reclusive and withdrawn, with only one interview given during his brief lifetime – it’s a task even more daunting than one would usually expect. Humphries has written bios of other musicians – Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Richard Thompson, Tom Waits, &c – and has evidently built a career and reputation in this area. I’m sure that he felt drawn to the music of Nick Drake in some ways, rather than simply choosing an artist about whom to write in the hope of selling tons of books – there are innumerable choices that would have garnered him greater sales – but without the cooperation of two critical people in Nick’s life (his sister Gabrielle and his manager/producer Joe Boyd), given the nature of his subject, the project was more or less doomed from the start.
Humphries mentions in his forward that Joe and Gabrielle `had decided not to cooperate’ – and since Joe’s Warlock Music is the publisher of all of Nick’s songs, this also meant that Humphries would be unable to quote from Nick’s lyrics. He was thus reduced to quoting Gabrielle and Joe from previously available sources. Molly and Rodney Drake, Nick’s parents, were deceased, so no direct conversations between them and the author were possible either.
The only other sources left for him upon which to draw were the remembrances of various friends of Nick and written articles about the man and his music. What emerges from all of this is inevitably a choppy picture of the man – not unsympathetic, but jarring and incomplete. Many parts of the book are simply strings of quotes strung together – and too many of the gaps have been filled in by well-meaning but ultimately tedious anecdotes about the music scene of the 60s and 70s in general.
Referring to the musicians and bands emerging from the public school scene in the UK of the time, Humphries mentions Genesis coming out of Charterhouse to begin their `windy, wuthering road’ to success – a reference to their `Wind and wuthering’ album of the late 70s. He’s trying a little too hard here for my tastes, I’m afraid.
Another irritating practice of Humphries is that he contradicts himself in too many places to mention. He can’t seem to settle on his own opinion. On p. 93, he says `Five Leaves Left is an astonishingly assured and mature debut’ – on p. 94, he says `Lyrically the songs on Five Leaves Left are largely unremarkable’. Huh? On p. 89, he speaks warmly of how well Robert Kirby (Nick’s school chum and string arranger on his first two albums) worked with Nick’s songs: `…his arrangements remain an integral part of the distinctive sound of Nick’s debut album’ – then, again from p. 94: `…perhaps the arrangements are a tad lush’. This sort of `playing both sides’ persists throughout the book. These are not instances of Humphries quoting the opinions of others (at least they are not presented in that way) – these are his own words.
The publisher, Bloomsbury, must also be taken to task, for their (lack of) editing – there are several errors in the book that have nothing to do with writing style, but everything (apparently) to do with allowing one’s computer spell-check program to act as an editor. This point may seem to be a bit picky, but in context of my other problems with the book, it merely added to my inability to appreciate it.
There’s another review below that wisely suggests that those interested in Nick allow his music to speak for him – and this is of course the closest we can come to him, for his music came from his heart and soul. Over the years since his death, it has become much more widely appreciated than it was in his lifetime – sadly this is the case in too many who die before their time. There is beauty in that music. Humphries speaks in several places of the darkness of Nick’s lyrics (but, being unable to quote from them, gives no examples), that his depression was a result of an adolescent never coming into maturity, unable to cope with the world – and many of the songs were dark, without a doubt.
There were, however, many moments of light and beauty. One only has to listen to the first track on his debut album (`Time has told me’ from Five Leaves Left) – to me, the song is one that speaks of hope and patience, of learning and recognizing the important things that are worth waiting for. That sounds like maturity and good judgment to me. Nick may well have been a troubled soul – but he was not without happiness, and he obviously understood and appreciated things that a person stuck in adolescence would not.
Near the end of the book, when Humphries is writing of the release of Nick’s final four songs, and some additional material – early home recordings and alternate takes – he quotes both Nick’s parents and Joe Boyd as saying that they were trying to make sure that anything they released reflected only well on Nick, that they were concerned with how he was represented, that he deserved that consideration. I think that he deserves better than this bio – that might seem harsh, but there’s simply too much contradiction and padding here. Rather than a 270+page book, this could have been edited down to a decent magazine article. There are a lot of facts here, but very little understanding. If you have the opportunity to view it, check out the fine documentary A Skin Too Few – it’s a much more satisfying portrait of this gentle man.
Review This second biography of the musician Nick Drake (1948-1974) uncovers new turf by conducting the first interview with Sophia Ryde (to whom, it is revealed, Drake wrote a letter left by his bedside when he died) and drawing upon a 2004 Belgian radio interview with Drake’s sister and friends. Trevor Dann went up to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, four years after Drake and thus has the advantage of being able to draw upon his near-contemporary recollections.
Dann’s narration of Drake’s childhood and early adult experiences is evenly paced and open-minded. With both of Drake’s parents having died, Dann speculates openly on the atmosphere at home in Tanworth-in-Arden, concluding that “childhood in a posh family in a quiet, isolated village could indeed be a torment”. Nick is painted as an aloof, somewhat supercilious figure, “the apple of his mother’s eye”, who was tall, articulate, academically unmotivated and, as he got older, near-schizophrenic as a result of excessive cannabis consumption. Stories of sex are conspicuous by their absence: Nick seemed to “float above the carnal world of student sex”, Dann states. Both Linda Thompson and Robin Frederick deny that their relationships with him were consummated. Rumours that Drake’s bulging jeans on the front cover of his first album betray an erection brought on by the male photographer are humorously handled by Dann, who states that this might rather be “…well, bollocks”.
His handling of Drake’s three albums – Five Leaves Left (1970), Bryter Layter (1970) and Pink Moon (1972) – is hampered by scant analysis of his lyrics, and is rather too influenced by Joe Boyd’s and Robert Kirby’s recollections. He does suggest that the proliferation of the word “ride” in later songs (e.g. Free Ride, Rider on the wheel) was a play on Sophia Ryde’s name and that the “ban on feeling free” in River Man and “Do you curse where you come from?” in Hazey Jane I indicate a stifling and depression-inducing family atmosphere. Dann comments that Nick’s sister Gabrielle did not seem to know him well and that all those who met him seemed to have the impression of a spectral, but nevertheless unmistakable presence. Luckily, Dann doesn’t make the mistake of assuming he has access to Drake’s ‘inner truth’, himself admitting that Nick seems “always elusive, never predictable; capable of warmth and affection, but never quite reliable enough to form a staunch friendship or be a dependable workmate”. The person who understood Drake best would appear to be John Martyn, who wrote the track ‘Solid Air’ about him.
In spite of the bubbling adoration to be found within the Drake cult, Trevor Dann is not afraid of quoting unflattering opinions (one recalls his job was to “get [Nick] out of his stinky bed in his grotty flat in Notting Hill…He was a complete pain in the arse”). Nevertheless, there are two key flaws to this well-written and otherwise delightful biography: Why does Dann not discuss what exactly was in the letter found by Nick’s bed? Even if Ryde refused to show it to him (presuming she still has it in her possession), it seems remarkable that Dann doesn’t flesh out his scoop more. Secondly, he closes his book with speculations that Drake’s depression and overdose of antidepressants at 26 point to child abuse, claiming that eight of Nick’s songs “fit the child abuse template”. Having meticulously presented his account of Drake’s life up to now, it does seem a shame that Dann chooses to leave the reader at the close in a wilderness of unsubstantiated speculation.
Review Dann’s book is a fine book in that it provides additional information to what is already known and is not simply a rehash of everything else already said – with the detail of Sophia Ryde’s letter thrown in. Dann tells us that ‘Sophia’ rhymes with ‘higher’ and it is this type of helpful ‘anorak’-style information that gives the book its page-turning hook. Dann lists every address that Nick ever lived at – complete with house number – in Burma, Tanworth-in-Arden and London; there is even a potted history of his father’s career in Burma and a brief summary of the career of Rodney’s father.
There are reproductions of old school and Cambridge college reports – complete with lists of exams passed and at what grade – interviews with his masters and room mates and reproductions of furious exchanges of letters – when Nick dropped out – between father Rodney and Fitzwilliam. There are new interviews with Linda Thompson, Chris Blackwell, Jeremy Mason, Richard Charkin, et al. There is no direct interview with Sophia apart from a mention of the track, Free Ride, and her reaction to it + plus a reference to the alleged ‘suicide note’ addressed to her. The extra details are commendable and the writing original. Not an easy achievement on a topic that has been worked to death with little scope for new material.
On the reservations side, there are unsubtantiated claims that Nick was a rather heavy heroin user, suffered from schizophrenia and also, various ‘digs’ at his character. The source of the heroin user claim is not revealed, so presumably, it could come from either of three sources: John Cale, keyboardist, ex-Velvet Underground who provided the backing music to ‘Northern Sky’, obliquely refers to it, the late Scott Appel – who gets a mention in the book – but as far as can be seen, Scott in his attempt to ‘reveal the truth’ is possibly blurring Nick with himself, e.g., the ‘speedballs’ and ‘demerol’, etc., these sound very ‘American’ in description.
If the source is his actress sister, Gabrielle Drake, and this is possible, because the letter she read out in the film ‘A Skin Too Few’ is reproduced here, there is clearly approval by Nick Drake’s Estate for at least some of the content Dann’s. Many details possibly could only have come from Gabrielle, in which case, the claims are probably more substantial than if they were merely speculation based on hearsay. Dann’s view that Nick Drake had schizophrenia caused by too much cannabis use is, he says, based on recent research, however even more recent research suggests that there is actually no link between cannabis use and mental illness, after all.
The latter part of the book has a brief track by track analysis of Nick’s work.
All in all, the book is in easy to read print, which makes it a rather short book, but is better than expected, over all. It has lilac end papers and a cover which is a photgraph taken by the late Keith Morris. It supplements Patrick Humprhies in-depth biography well, although the title ‘in search of’, with rock writer Peter Guralnick’s leit motif of a ‘quest’ to ‘find’ a mysterious long-gone figure, probably sits better with Humphries’ book. A good analogy would be that Dann’s book is the equivalent of the sensationalist Life & Death of Sylvia Plath by Ronald Hayman to Jacqueline Rose’s learned The Haunting of Sylvia Plath in that you get a better sense of Nick Drake’s true character from the cautious Humphries’ biography, but the ‘squalid facts’ from Dann with no punches pulled nor pussyfooting around the family’s possible sensibilties.
In addition, there are some new and interesting photographs included.
Oh, I do like this one. Outtakes from sessions for all the three albums, plus a few alternate takes… mmm, yummy. Amazingly, they really sound way more polished and completed than much of the Pink Moon stuff, real songs that have been rejected for reasons only Nick would be able to clarify had he lived. Predictably, this is also the most ‘diverse’ of his albums, although granted, that’s not saying much.
There’s even a blues cover on here for Jesus’ sake, and it rules! Robin Frederick’s ‘Been Smoking Too Long’ is taken in the exact same muddy production style you’d hear on an early John Lee Hooker or even Robert Johnson record, with low-treble guitar and vocals that seem to be coming from the underground… what a MAH-vel. Of course, Nick couldn’t be mistaken for an old bluesman a thousand leagues away, but that doesn’t really matter as he manages to get the soul of the blues perfectly.
And on the other hand, you get some really strange stuff like ‘I Was Born To Love Magic’ that starts almost as a complaintive medieval ode and then suddenly changes into near-Hollywood glee midway through and then even incorporates a certain Easternish feel; definitely one of Nick’s best, and maybe the only song in his catalog to betray him as a child of the psychedelic era. (The word ‘magic’, anyone? Lovin’ Spoonful?).
And, of course, the powerful title track, which may or may not be the best one on here, but it sure as hell can count as one of Nick’s most convincing anthems ever. Where for Mr Dylan the times they were a-changin’, for Mr Drake time had no reply, as he just stands there with his completely isolated and misunderstood self and nobody in the world gives a damn. No wonder Drake never had any commercial success – a commercially successful priest of self-isolationism would be a mockery, much more so than a public-happy guitar-waving Bruce Springsteen. Beautiful song.
Another total marvel is ‘Clothes Of Sand’, another in a line of Drake’s chill-sending mystical tales with no clear interpretation. One of those neat vocal hooks when he goes ‘clothes of sand have covered your face, given you meaning but taken my place’… it’s hard to tell exactly what kind of emotional impact this line gives one, but one thing is obvious, the protagonist of the song is not at all similar to Drake’s ideal of ‘hazey Jane’, and the very idea of sporting ‘clothes of sand’ doesn’t seem like a particularly attractive one – so the song should be taken as a mighty condemnation epic, I guess.
And then you fall upon something timid, lightweight and innocent like the pretty jazzy ‘Mayfair’, just a little slushy romantic waltzing that can charm you into total oblivion for a couple minutes. And this interspersed with a home demo of ‘Strange Meeting II’, another lost love song with mystical overtones that’s totally involving yet I guess was left off the actual albums because Nick thought it too immature.
True enough, as good as the song is, in this case the lyrics are WAY too clear and metaphor-free to qualify along with Nick’s best, but any songwriter of lesser stature would sure kill for these lines.
And then there are all the outtakes of already known tunes – there’s ‘Fly’, which actually sounds cleaner and clearer than on Bryter Layter, and a slightly electrified version of ‘The Thoughts Of Mary Jane’ with Richard Thompson adding sharp but economic licks, and ‘Man In A Shed’, one of the best songs on Five Leaves Left. And none of the weaker songs off that album.
And finally, the record closes with four tracks recorded by Nick in February 1974, just before his untimely death, which don’t show any progression – stylistically, there’s not much departure from Pink Moon – but which are nevertheless interesting. Particularly the scary ‘Black-Eyed Dog’, with its haunting refrain (‘a black eyed dog he called at my door, a black eyed dog he called for more’), which certainly can seem creepy in the light of Nick’s unexpected death. One of those minimalistic, yet sharp-hittin’ folk tunes that really make you appreciate the genre. A bit unusual approach for Nick, too, what with the changed vocal intonations (impersonating an old beggar here, I guess?), and with some marvelous acoustic guitarwork.
Must say, though, that the other three songs fail to impress me all that much – in fact, I think they represent the weakest material on the record, kinda like the weak hookless material on Pink Moon. Which begs for a terrifying question, of course: maybe by 1974 Nick Drake was just totally drained artistically? Having said everything he really wanted to say on his first two albums and just a couple more things on the third one? Which would, of course, logically lead to the assumption that his death was suicide over frustration. Whatever. Nobody knows, and nobody will ever know.
In the meantime, just remember that this album is a worthy, if not actually equal, companion, to the regular studio albums, and I’d violently recommend it over Pink Moon, even. It rounds out Nick’s output almost perfectly, and actually, remember that songs that the artist did not want to have released during his lifetime often say just as much about the artist’s personality as those he wanted to have released.
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.
Nick Drake was without a doubt an underestimated genius. Underestimated not by others, but by himself. He was a man of recluse and low self-confidence. He always thought he wasn�t talented musically, and it puzzles many how he could even think of himself as un-talented, nevermind actually believing it.
One would have no idea that he thought of himself like that after listening to Bryter Layter. This was probably his most orchestrated album, containing not only his soft-spoken voice, guitar and violin but also drumming, bass, piano and a brass instrument here and there (Such as the saxophone in At the Chime of a City Clock) even going so far to include a xylophone during the song Northern Sky. He definitely went all out on this album and it really shows.
Even with the use of so many wonderfully arranged instruments, it still seems simplistic enough to be a nice calming listen, but while retaining enough depth so not to come off as boring or repetitive. But when it comes down to it, what do people end up listening to? That’s right, his sweet gentleman tone of voice and his amazing finger picked guitar playing.
Songs like One of These Things First are easily a prime example of this, when ever you listen to it, you’ll initially be in awe of the majestic piano but by the end your attention always wanders back to Drake’s soothing voice and melodic guitar playing. Not only does his voice leave such as an impression, the lyrics he sings always have a very nice message.
Take Hazey Jane I for example, a song the seems like it’s about a woman so infatuated with a man that she passes by on so many other things in life she could be enjoying. But for some reason these songs never come off as being too depressing, unlike a lot of his other work. Again, this is probably contributed to the fact that the other instruments he experimented with on this album give it more of an upbeat feeling, no matter what the subject matter is.
However, these lyrics and messages are vital, mainly because one of the only let downs on the album (and it’s not really THAT big of a let down) is the title track, Bryter Layter. This instrumental track, clocking in at 3 minutes and 22 seconds sounds slightly dated and sounds like a cheesy intermission tune. Compared to the brilliant songs before and after (Hazey Jane I and Fly respectively) it comes of as being a little bit of a filler track, but it’s intended purpose was probably just for him to experiment on an instrumental song, and just try something out of the ordinary.
Even more out of the ordinary is the 6 minute song, Poor Boy. Easily one of the most epic songs in all of Nick Drake’s relatively short career it truly is a masterpiece. Using choir vocals in the chorus, and his own voice during the verses. It also features such wonderful arrangements for saxophone, piano and guitar.
Sunday is really the perfect way to close out an album, a calm flute melody played over a brilliant sounding guitar and later on, an organ. It just puts the whole album in perspective, despite it not being as powerful as the other songs on the album.
Pros- Amazing orchestration, brilliant lyeics and he has such a wonderful voice.
Cons- The instrumental tracks are nothing really to get excited about, when I listen to this album I usually skip Bryter Layter and rarely bother waiting through Sunday.
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.
“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.
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.