Unbearable Lightness of Being – Buyer’s Guide to Nick Drake

Authored by Dale Nickey:

Nick Drake had the whole enchilada. Talent, leading man looks, loving supportive family, charm, intelligence and the opportunity of a Cambridge education in the liberal arts.  Island Records gave him carte’ blanch to make records how and when the spirit moved him.  Nick Drake died in his bed in his parent’s home, from an overdose of anti-depressants at the age of 26.  He died a failed recording artist.

Nick is poster boy for the beautiful, doomed and depressed poet in all of us.  His back story raises more questions than it answers.  He sold a pittance of records in his lifetime.  Yet, somehow in death he has become a cult sensation and a thriving cottage industry.  Nick Drake is the patron saint of earnest, self-absorbed, acoustic-guitar wielding emo-heads the world over.  We have still photos but no moving images of the man. And he gave only one brief newspaper interview in his life.  He refused to tour.  Nick Drake remains forever young; an exotic rainforest creature frozen in amber.

The real story of Nick Drake can only be told through his music.  He recorded three albums during his short life.  A tragic trilogy as perfect as any discography on the planet.

Here are those official releases:

Five Leaves Left (1969) – Island Records producer Joe Boyd took the plunge and produced Nick Drake after Nick shuffled into the office of Island Records, dropped a reel of tape on the desk, mumbled something barely intelligible to the secretary and left…..The music speaks for itself. This is Nick’s most pastoral and optimistic album.  There is much sun and light in this album and the bright green record cover perfectly evokes this era of Nick’s life.  Growing up safe and supported in the (centuries old) rural hamlet of Tamworth In Arden.  An idyllic community full of trees, parks, grass, flowers, churches and ghosts.  Five Leaves Left was the title of this record.  He would pass away in five years after it’s making.   Did he know?

Bryter Layter (1970) – This is his city album.   Saxophone, jazz piano and sultry female backup singers are added to the pallet of colors.  Nick is still the well mannered, gentile, rural bumpkin.  However, you get the distinct impression he is availing himself of the temptations of London’s urban jungle. Indeed the album cover shows Drake to be somewhat disheveled and shopworn. “Chime Of The City Clock” is a landscape composition; full of chilly, autumn, downtown twilight ambiance.  John Cale (ex-Velvet Underground)  appears on two songs and makes you wish he had stayed for more.

Pink Moon (1972) – Ironic that the musical jewel in Nick’s crown is the rawest set of tunes in his canon.  When Nick began this; his third and last album, he was an unkempt, depressed and borderline catatonic shadow of his former self.  He made the decision to record this album unadorned by other musicians.  Just solo voice and guitar. It was the right call.  Peripheral orchestrations and ornamentation would have only diluted the power of these tunes.  The production is clear, full and dry.  It sounds as if Nick is playing a private recital in your home.  Just Nick, parked in a chair with his guitar foretelling his untimely death at the age of 26.

If you have already fallen under Nick’s spell, then you must have these:

Family Tree (2007) – This anthology of private demos was released posthumously.  It is essential listening for anyone seeking the roots of Nick’s muse.  A top-notch remastering job insures this assortment of covers, blues standards, and embryonic sketches are all they can be.  Nick’s mom even contributes a solo track of one of her compositions on voice and piano.  A cut by Nick Drake’s mom is hardly essential to the casual listener.  But, those familiar with Nick Drake’s music will hear the familiar in terms of voice and harmonic structure; testimony to the power of maternal DNA.

Made To Love Magic (2004) – Another posthumous compilation of Nick outtakes, and songs not chosen for his three official releases.  The quality of the material does not flag and all the tracks are cleaned up and re-mastered to a high gloss finish.  String arrangements are added after the fact by Robert Kirby; Nick’s arranger of choice on his first two LP’s.  It also contains five unreleased tracks that would have been destined for Nick Drake’s follow up to Pink Moon.  Sadly this was never to be.

Nick Drake’s gravesite in Tamworth In Arden bears a quote on his headstone.  It is a lyric taken from his last song on his last album, Pink Moon

“ Now we rise,  And we are everywhere….”

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