“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.
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// Notes from the Road
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