Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nick Drake

I must admit that the music of Nick Drake largely passed me by when he first appeared on the scene in the late 60's. Only recently when invited by a friend to give an opinion on his work have I returned to his earlier recordings to realise that "River Man" and "Northern Sky" were already to a degree familiar.

Some things immediately tweaked my interest when I did a little research on Nick. I found for example that we were born in the same year in June (within a few days of each other). Also I could easily identify with a certain aspect of his personality which I believe is essential to understanding his music.
He possessed - what I would term - an existential personality (i.e. where deeper questioning regarding the meaning of existence tends to dominate normal every day experience). So it did not surprise me to find that he had a copy of "The Myth of Sisyphus" by his bedside when he died.
There were also some other interesting details e.g. in the fact that Chris de Burgh was briefly a member of his first band at school. Also I found it fascinating to find that Elton John had recorded four Nick Drake tracks in 1970 at the time when his own career was really taking off.

So in the past week or so I have been reacquainting myself with an artist that had eluded - as with so many others - attention first time around.

As is now well known, Nick Drake completed just three albums before his untimely death (with total sales of the three less than 10,000). However, thankfully a few always believed in his talent. And this faith has proven well justified as he is more popular than ever (enjoying a certain cult status among a growing number of followers).

The three albums he recorded are very different. My own clear favourite is the first "Five Leaves Left". The second "Bryter Layter" is more commercially orientated and contains at least one song "Northern Sky" that should have been a massive hit (with the right kind of marketing). Indeed even now if it was properly promoted this could still happen! However - perhaps precisely because of its more commercial sound - this does not have quite the same resonance for me as the first album. The third "Pink Moon" is a very stripped down recording where to my mind Nick sounds at times remarkably like Donovan. Indeed some of the songs e.g. the title track "Pink Moon" seem very much in the style of Donovan's own writing. Though some would maintain that this is is his finest recording I would not concur. For one thing it is very short in duration (like some early "surf" albums by the Beach Boys).

However I would have no hesitation in considering "Five Leaves Left" as a truly remarkable recording on many levels.

For one thing it shows that Nick had a uniquely distinctive voice that simultaneously is extremely light and gentle and yet quite grave in tone. And this very voice is uniquely suited to revealing the paradox of existence (which is a recurring theme in his songs).

Also his acoustic guitar playing as for example on the track "Three Hours" is truly exquisite. And then the quality of most of the songs both musically and lyrically is of a very high order. I especially like "River Man" (which is perhaps his best known), "Day is Done" (which has a guitar intro that is reminiscent of Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle") "The Thoughts of Mary Jane", "Time has Told Me" (recorded by Elton John before his breakthrough) and especially "Fruit Tree" (which I would see as his most definitive song).

On the debit side the words cannot always be distinctly heard and at times the arrangements - though full of wonderful baroque touches - are over produced. (This is especially so on "The Thoughts of Mary Jane" where his voice (in the latter parts) is drowned out by the accompaniment!

However the essence of Drake's great gift lies I believe in the very nature of his personality. As many have testified he was not a good social mixer and tended to become increasingly withdrawn in later life. So properly listening to him resembles a secret initiation through which one becomes drawn into an immensely evocative hidden world that in various ways echoes the great mystery of life.

Though this I believe is true of all his songs in a special way it is true of "Fruit Tree" which has proven eerily prophetic with respect to Drake's own life.

In a way the true message of Nick Drake's songs is very challenging. He is is not attempting to provide answers but rather reveal what alone is ultimately true of existence i.e. its great mystery. At times such mystery can inspire joy and a great depth of meaning. At other times - as it clearly did in his own short life - it can threaten to engulf one in a seemingly unending darkness.

Even the title of this first album resonates with meaning. Before listening I was looking out my back garden and admiring the lovely golden brown autumn colours on the cherry and fruit trees. However these leaves enjoy but a transient existence and are very quickly gone. When Nick recorded this album he had but five years left to live. So his own existence was to prove as transient as the leaves in the title.

And in way I think this is the core message that comes from both Nick Drake's life and recordings i.e. the truly fragile nature of existence.

However there is also a deeper element of hope to be found in that life does not end with our mortal death. Somehow it continues on in the lives of others (for we all remain part of this infinite tapestry of existence).
And in a sense Nick Drake is a wonderful example of this hope for he has now been reborn fruitfully in the lives of an ever expanding group of admirers (in a way that he never achieved during his 26 short years on earth).

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