PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

Nathan Wiseman-Trowse's Authorial Fancy About a Nick Drake Song

Speculation is interesting, but it seems that the best option for someone writing about Nick Drake's "Dreaming England" would be assertiveness, conclusiveness, and definition.


Nick Drake: Dreaming England

Publisher: Reaktion
Length: 172 pages
Author: Nathan Wiseman-Trowse
Price: $25.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-10
Amazon

Nathan Wiseman-Trowse’s exploration of Englishness in Nick Drake’s music in this slender volume seems promising enough. Drake’s homeland has absorbed music from around the globe into its collective bloodstream and emerged time and again with some of the planet’s best music for its efforts.

Drake lived at the right time. The '60s, the period during which he attended university, saw a broadening of the English consciousness; his own interest in a variety of musics and Eastern spirituality informed his work. But problems with Dreaming England, a book with a promising if somewhat difficult thesis, emerge quickly.

In the earliest paragraphs the author draws a link between an early ‘80s television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Brideshead Revisited and Drake’s “River Man”. Wiseman-Trowse suggests that “River Man”, although not used in said adaptation, would have made a perfect companion for a scene in which friends Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder enjoy a short picnic. Wiseman-Trowse writes that “one could almost imagine the gentle strains” of the song “echoing the evocation of English pastoralism”. It’s a nice image, and to this the author adds “Drakes music seems to suggest a moment of stillness that is linked to rural bliss and a suspension between the mundane nature of reality and the potentiality of something far greater and unknowable”. Lovely words, a lovely and agreeable sentiment that, like so much of this book, never convinces the reader. The thesis is aloof, untamable, and, perhaps worst of all, tenuous.

Witness Wiseman-Trowse’s next statement: “While Drake’s music was never used for Brideshead Revisited, the picnic scene and ‘River Man’ seem to echo the same inherent Englishness: something that seems both timeless and deeply rooted in the past.” It’s an agreeable enough statement but here, as above, the author’s lack of commitment to the idea, his tendency to rely on “seems to” rather than “is” undermines an intriguing and worthwhile idea. To the statement above he adds “They both convey an intangible quality that nonetheless speaks of a landscape that is instantly recognizable and deeply longed for.”

That intangibility is the problem. One would hope that the author would draw links that would bring us closer to the tangible, provide evidence that convinces but instead he speculates and ultimately leaves the burden of proof too much to the reader. If we can imagine it, he seems to argue, it will make it so. It is, as is the case with so much of this book, a lovely sentiment but one that is deeply flawed.

Writing about place and art can be difficult. There's often an unspoken quality about the character of a people, a code that must be cracked through long-term immersion and deep exploration. To explain this to an outsider requires evidence that draws the outsider closer to the edge of the circle they, along with the author, are exploring. In the best cases we find ourselves as immersed as the author, separated only by time and location.

Once more, however, it is Wiseman-Trowse’s own language that defeats him. He adds that his book is “an attempt to understand why it may be possible” to draw a link between a scene in a television adaptation of Waugh’s elegant novel and one of Drake’s most beautifully rendered songs, “but more broadly between much of Drake’s music and the idea of Englishness”.

I have no problem with the second portion of this statement. There is an Englishness that runs through the work of Robert Wyatt, Pink Floyd, and John Wesley Harding (through the filter of American culture in the case of this last) and, like Wiseman-Trowse writes of his subject, is not solely down to the nationality of the artist. There is evidence, however, in the case of each of these artists that can be linked to the art in a way that is in its way tangible.

We know all about Roger Waters’ quip, on Dark Side of the Moon about hanging on in quiet desperation being the English way. Inspired by the remnants of an empire in waste, the physical and psychological detritus of World War II, a generation raised by mums and aunties, and the notion that one needed to prepare for their future while the present evaporated before their very eyes, the statement is exacting, incisive, memorable. Of course, we can also look to Waters’ character and argue that his father’s death in World War II has become an important motif in his work and one that is revisited again and again. We might argue that that thread will not die until Waters himself ceases to practice his craft. And then, of course, it is preserved for all time, allowing us to revisit his authorial concerns as well as examining the historical context which gave rise to his statement.

The problem with Wiseman-Trowse’s assertion that the Brideshead scene “seems” to echo “River Man” is that it’s not tied to anything other than an authorial fancy. One might just as easily imagine Brian May’s guitar providing the score to a Medieval battle in a film but that doesn’t mean that there’s a connection anywhere but in the mind of the imaginer. It is, of course, a hallmark of modernism that works are both complete (the artist has “finished” a song or a painting) and incomplete (the work relies on some interaction with the viewer/reader/listener). But so what?

This authorial fancy is not just evident in the book’s introduction (on which we have focused solely on to this point) but throughout the body of the work. Despite two English-language Drake biographies, numerous articles, a smattering of documentaries and, of course, his recorded output, Drake’s life remains something of a mystery. His death alone could be the subject of a book-length work as we try to unwind the mystery as to whether he intended to kill himself or if it was a mere accident. But so what? Speculation is interesting, but it seems that the best option for someone writing about Drake would be assertiveness, conclusiveness, definition.

Wiseman-Trowse’s work is built on a broad range of speculation and arguments built more on the prism through which the author hears Drake’s work rather than accepting the work as it exists. His opening chapter begins with the observation that “There are no explicit references to England, the country, or indeed Britain, the political union, anywhere in the music of Nick Drake.” That an explicit reference does not exist is not enough to entirely dissuade the reader from believing that one might find a connection. But it seems paramount that the author himself find a connection and make that explicit to his reader. Instead, the author spins circles, remarking on how other artists shared an “Englishness” with Drake but never arriving at a remotely convincing definition of what “Englishness” is.

Is there a strong lyrical connection between the Romantic poets and Drake? If so, where are the lyrical connections? A quotation from Blake offered up and compared with one of Drake’s own lines here or there would be sufficient but no such comparison materializes. There are some nice and detailed discussions about how George Orwell influenced the idea of “Englishness” (a yardstick for some, but not all) or how certain sleeve photos may have been influenced by the work of J.G. Ballard because they were taken in close proximity to where Ballard set a particular scene in one of his novels.

It’s the kind of speculation that spins the reader in circles and proves, well, nothing. Why not suggest that Thomas Pynchon carries a patina of “Englishness” because he, like Drake, remains enigmatic?

So much more it seems could be done by relying on national character during the era which Drake wrote and recorded his music, on the things he is known to have done (read, listened to, watched) than the fanciful thoughts the author and Drake fans have about this or that. This is not to condemn the work outright. There are many interesting observations throughout, though the author’s tendency to speculate on the significance of album sleeve art rather than dive into analysis of lyrics or chord progressions (two things that might better illuminate his thesis) quickly dulls one’s enthusiasm.

The most useful element of Wiseman-Trowse’s book is the final chapter, a mere 20 pages about Drake’s legacy, including the many tributes that have populated the musical landscape in recent years and how his popularity swelled with the use of his music in a Volkswagen commercial. (Curiously, the author neglects a work that might have offered greater support to his claims, Robyn Hitchcock’s excellent “I Saw Nick Drake”, a fitting tribute to Drake’s Englishness from another artist who remains enigmatically and overwhelmingly English.) A detailed chronology and a select bibliography and detailed discography prove amusing for those wanting to know more about Drake and who find themselves wanting after finishing Dreaming England.

5

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.