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.