Review Summary: Watch as John Paul performs literary fellatio on this 1970's singer-songwriter icon.Genius
is a puzzling trait. To be sure, we all feel comfortable in our knowledge of what a genius is- but aside from a vague definition, no two observers will attribute the adjective identically. Is Andy Warhol a silkscreen maverick, or a mere forger of soup labels? Did Charlie Chaplain simply perform slap-stick routines, or did he revolutionize the medium of film forever? Indeed- the term “genius” seems to be arbitrary and problematic- almost to the point of being utterly useless as a word.
Yet, in spite of these vague parameters, we seem to use the phrase quite often- especially when defining a favourite artist. It would seem that, even though we cannot effectively describe it in words, we all know, in our collective consciousness, what traits a genius ought to possess
. When we consider the field of music, our Genius should be uniquely original. We’d demand him to have some degree of emotional depth, with most of us expecting at least a passing knowledge of his instrument. We’d like him to have a clear control over his artistic visions, and, though we may try to convince ourselves otherwise, we want him to exude a certain image of himself. Certainly this won’t apply for all of us, but in general, I believe we all look for some form of the abovementioned qualities in our artists.
If that is so, then 1970’s folk icon-turned-martyr Nick Drake just might be the quintessential
genius. And his 1969 debut opus, Five Leaves Left
, is all the evidence needed.
Laced with intricate melodies and baroque sensibilities, Five Leaves Left
represents the perfect melding of 60’s folk, British classicism, and Drakes’ own personal turmoil. In the 30 years since his mysterious death, Nick Drake has since come to personify the immortal image of the dark, brooding savant. During his brief life, he recorded some of the most beautiful acoustic music ever to be heard on vinyl- yet in grand maverick tradition was consistently ignored by the artistic community at large. Indeed, after his [three] albums were met only rejection and lukewarm interest, Nick simply quit music entirely and lived out the rest of his lonely days in his parent’s home, until a suspicious overdose claimed his life in November of 1974. Only in recent years has his name and legacy become known the public- thanks to wild acclaim from artists who would know more fame and recognition than the shy and reclusive Nick could have ever hoped to attain.
His debut piece, Five Leaves Left
- (a reference to a disclaimer on his cigarette packages), was recorded in 1969 while young Nick was attending the hallowed halls of Cambridge University, yet was rooted in his bizarre childhood. Born to English parents living amid the dark, mysterious jungles of colonial Burma, Nick, from a very early age was exposed to the exotic beauty and eerie loneliness of this isolated world. As such, he retained a curious affinity for the strange and foreign- even after relocating to the British Isles at age three.
A quiet and inoffensive man, Nick spent would spend his years in the shadow from insomnia, shyness, and clinical depression- all of which are manifest in the soft, sweet melodies he crafted. Though socially awkward in real life, Nick found solace in his own, unique style of music. As such, he sounded fairly confidant in his songs- as if he had surrendered to his personal demons and finally accepted them as a part of his life. And unlike fellow folk icons Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, who could occasionally annoy their listeners with self-righteous sneering, Nick sung with a soft voice, one that was filled with a lonesome kind of understanding for his life. His lyrics- though hardly those of a poet, reflected this kind of all-knowing, yet still humble persona in a way that was depressingly honest. But somehow, his words of bittersweet words of pain and isolation are melancholically comforting
Although his name almost never graces the glossy pages of today’s guitar magazines, Nick Drake had the ability to weave a tapestry of pure emotion with only an acoustic guitar. His mastery of the guitar is apparent from the very first minutes of Five Leaves Left
, yet his style is exceptionally troublesome to articulate. Rather than fall victim to the standards and clichés of the 1960’s folk movement, Drake, through very little effort, created an entirely organic way of playing- as if he was directly channeling his personal thoughts and visions through the naturally gentle movements in his hands. Although absurd as it may sound, it is truthfully impossible to give names when describing potential influences- did the tribal music of foreign cultures lead Drake to detune his guitar and build sweeping sound scrapes outside the realm of western culture- as evident on the earthy flight of “Three Hours”? Or did Nick borrow from Miles Davis when writing his jittery, jazz-tinged chord progressions for the wandering mind-trip of “River Man”? Between serene, hippie-ish soundscapes of nature and odd detours into Bill Evens-esque piano inprov, Nick Drake reveals himself to be a deceivingly clever musician- masterfully traversing his way though several genres.
Indeed, the entire duration of Five Leaves Left is a masterfully bizarre kaleidoscope of sounds and influences- all seamlessly weaved together into a hypnotic, complexly dissonant style that seems to echo his lyrical themes of emptiness, loss, and regret. And had he left it alone, Nick might have been able to join the ranks of his fellow folk revivalists. Yet, Drake was to be decidedly separate from the traditionally close-minded singer-songwriter clique. In a grand imitation of the great classical composers before him, Nick chose to tastefully embellish his fingerpicker compositions with breath-taking orchestral movements. Nearly every song on Five Leaves Left is a perfect example of tasteful and stunning string works- whether it be the delightful lone cello work of “Cello Song”, which plays out like an intimate conversation, or the divinely sobering “Way to Blue”, which employs a full symphonic movement to create a baroque epic so delicately despairing that it makes Eleanor Rigby appear cheerful be comparison. In these ways, Five Leaves Left
is truly amazing- Drake not only integrates the seemingly impossible sounds of free-flowing, earthy acoustic thoughts with the dignified tones of British chamber compositions, but makes the combination look as if it were merely the logical evolution the music.
With out relying on meaningless superlatives, I can only implore upon you that this is a pure and honest glimpse into the tortured mind of a genius. Five Leaves Left
, today held dear to be one the crown jewels of the 1970’s singer-songwriter movement, is nothing less than an artistic tour de force for the once-forgotten Nick Drake. Between sweeping string arrangements, naturally intricate guitar melodies, and piercingly melancholy personality, this record is worth infinitely more that the comparatively minor monetary value it was sold to me for. On a personal level, I’ll admit that I’m not naive enough to claim that every body will like Nick Drake. Nor will I try press the futile question as to whether he is a genius or not. All I can say is that Nick Drake is an icon of the folk world, whose short and sorrowful life was spent writing a gentle and humble body of work has brought an immeasurable amount and solace and comfort to the world.
It’s lonely music, to be sure. But it’s music you can be
. Swear to god.
“Day Is Done”- Recommended listening, yo: