Since his death, Nick Drake has slowly grown from an obscurity to an icon. His inimitable blend of hypnotic, intricate guitar work and melancholy lyrics have made him a favorite of both singer/songwriters (who admire his craftsmanship) and introspective indie types (who relate to his quiet desperation). Both, no doubt, are attracted to the romantic tragedy of his life, which has given the deceased singer the mystique that, ironically, only dying young can bestow. The name Nick Drake has come to describe a whole subset of music that’s hushed, introspective, and brooding, and many artists have consciously tried to sound “like Nick Drake”. Unfortunately, when he died, Drake thought himself a complete failure, and nobody, least of all him, could have predicted how immense his influence would become.
In another sign that his legacy is spreading with each new generation of music fan and musician alike, Fontana Island will reissue Fruit Tree, the four-disc box set of Drake’s three original releases and Time of No Reply, a collection of outtakes and unreleased tracks. The set has been out of print for seven years, and this time around it will also include A Skin Too Few, a documentary chronicling Drake’s short life and career, with a 108-page book that details the story of each track. If all of this isn’t enough to send every self-proclaimed music aficionado to the record store, the set is being released as a one-time only, limited offer: 10,000 copies will be released on CD and 2,000 copies will be released on vinyl. That’s the kind of treatment reserved for artists like Drake, the patron saint of melancholy.
Drake’s story, to be sure, is one of mystery and tragedy. Getting his start as a college student at Cambridge University in the late 1960s, he was soon recording for Joe Boyd, a producer who also signed artists such as Richard Thompson and the Incredible String Band. At the age of 20, Drake recorded his first album, 1969’s Five Leaves Left, then followed it up with 1970’s Bryter Layter and 1972’s Pink Moon. The first two albums are an astonishing blend of folk, jazz, and the occasional country flourish mixed with classical orchestration. The last, hauntingly, is just Drake and guitar or piano, his voice barely strong enough to stay afloat of the music.
Drake’s music, while stunning in both its artistry and quiet intensity, never caught on. For one, he was too nervous to tour in support of his albums, so he was never able to fit into any established scene. Moreover, he soon became afflicted with a depression that forced him into the confines of his parents’ home, a depression so crippling that he even lost interest in his own music. Towards the end of his recording career, he commented that he didn’t have any songs left in him, the slight relief that his craft provided completely gone. On November 25, 1974, at the age of 26, Drake was found dead in his bedroom at his parents’ residence. He had overdosed on antidepressants, and whether or not it was an intentional act has been debated through the decades.
Perhaps the main reason his music failed to garner much interest, though, was the fact that it was far too demanding to cultivate much of an immediate audience. Like many great artists atop of their game, Drake created art that requires effort; effort to absorb, effort to understand, and, most of all, effort to appreciate. Unlike most artists, however, his art displayed a maturity from the start. This is largely because he worked with the right people, such as the aforementioned Boyd (who knew how to complement Drake’s voice without overwhelming it) and arranger Robert Kirby (who was simply a genius at painting images in sound). The true genius, however, was Drake, who would prove to be equally moving without the skills of Kirby on Pink Moon.
Indeed, Five Leaves Left is one of the most stunning debuts in folk-rock history, if only because it sounds like nothing before, or after. Right from the first song, “Time Has Told Me”, Drake establishes himself as an original musician. An oddly organic mixture of folk, jazz, and classic country, the piece perfectly encapsulates Drake’s disregard for convention or genre. He didn’t so much play the guitar as cast spells with it. Tracks like “Day is Done” and “Thoughts of Mary Jane” show that his musical talents far exceeded his age, his signature picking hypnotic in its symmetry. More importantly, though, were the lyrics, an unrelenting barrage of one disconcerting image after another. “Don’t you worry / They’ll stand and stare when you’re gone,” Drake sings in “Fruit Tree”, and it’s hard not to wonder if he knew all along how his life would end.
Bryter Layter is a lighter album in terms of sound, but Drake’s faint brooding is always there, struggling to break out from under the sunny surface. Because of this odd juxtaposition, the album sometimes comes across as what has become termed twee, but it’s more sincere than its musical offspring. “Hazey Jane II”, for instance, sounds more than a little like Belle and Sebastian, right down to its chirpy horns and bookish lyrics (“And all the friends that you once knew are left / Behind they kept / You safe and so secure amongst the books and / All the records of your lifetime”). Such is Drake’s influence. Decades later, his imitators are so thorough in their copies that those copies sound like discarded originals. Occasionally, though, Drake does chase a hint of hope, such as when in “Fly” he seeks to leave the past by pleading, “Please give me a second grace / Please give me a second face / I’ve fallen far down the first time around.”
But if Bryter Layter represents a brief beacon of hope for Drake, Pink Moon captures a man quickly sinking in his own despair. One need only to look at the lyrics to see that he wouldn’t last much longer. “Know”, for example, is comprised of only four short, troubling lines: “Know that I love you / Know I don’t care / You know that I see you / You know I’m not there”. While vague enough to be interpreted in various ways, in retrospect it sounds uncomfortably like a suicide note. “Harvest Breed” also contains what might have been clues to Drake’s mindset, the narrator proclaiming that he is, “falling fast and falling free” and that “this could be the end”. Just as harrowing as the lyrics is the music, which is stripped down to just Drake’s voice and his own playing on guitar or piano. Gone are the lush, sweeping orchestral arrangements of Robert Kirby, which leaves nothing to hide Drake’s torment.
Fruit Tree adds to these three essential albums by giving some much needed context. A Skin Too Few, while a rather scant 48 minutes in length, provides clues into Drake’s tortured mind. Combining rare photos of Drake (unfortunately, no video of him exists) and interview footage of his family members, friends, and collaborators, the documentary sheds some light on a mysterious person. Drake, like most people, was a product of his environment, and the film makes this clear by chronicling his family background and schooling. His mother, for example, was also a songwriter, her songs eerily as unconventional and haunting as her son’s. additionally, the film elaborates Drake spent his childhood in privileged private schools, and precisely the kinds of places that breed alienation. It’s easy to see how such a child would find his release from loneliness in music. What’s most clear from the film, though, is that Drake was just as illusive to his loved ones as he is to his present-day fans.
Overall, Fruit Tree presents Nick Drake’s music as it should be: a unified body of work. Any of his three albums is astonishing alone, but each only gives an incomplete view of a complex figure. Taken together, Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, and Pink Moon show a young man who tried like hell to escape from his demons and briefly succeeded, only to falter and become devoured by them. Along with Time of No Reply and A Skin Too Few, the three albums are the definitive picture of a seminal artist in recent musical history. If he only knew how immense his impact would be, perhaps Drake would still be with us. Then again, it’s not just the music, but also the tragedy, that makes Drake such an alluring, enduring figure.