Sunday, March 16, 2014

Nick Drake

A Guardian article about a unique artist. The titles take you to the songs but I added them myself anyway. So many fabulous tracks omitted. I vividly remember hearing Drake myself for the first time in my brother's flat in North London in the late Eighties. His flatmate had bough the wonderful Fruit Tree boxset compilation. Hearing Drake's voice for the first time was quite other worldly.

10 of the best: Nick Drake

Nick Drake only recorded three albums during his short lifetime, yet choosing 10 songs that best capture his delicate magic is still a challenge
Nick Drake
Master of atmosphere ... Nick Drake

1. Hazey Jane II

Allow me to begin this playlist with a personal story. I was 15 when I first picked up a copy of Nick Drake's second album, Bryter Layter, from my local record shop and sat down to play it on my parents' stereo. On hearing Hazey Jane II, the album's first proper song, I felt an instant connection that I knew I would almost certainly never experience again. Drake's voice – delicately poised between graceful fragility and breaking completely – chimed deeply with the things that I was experiencing at the time: shyness, oversensitivity and a heightened sense of melancholy. The lyrics to Hazey Jane II spoke, as do so many of his songs, of an inability to fit in with a world "so crowded that you can't look out the window in the morning". As soon as the album finished I didn't simply press play again: instead, I went straight back out to buy Drake's other albums.

2. River Man

Drake was a master of atmosphere, with an ability to evoke places and periods that suggested specifics but were more often otherworldly and timeless. His debut album, Five Leaves Left, had the naive charm one might expect of an boy who wandered around Cambridge reading poetry, but River Man was a clear sign of the mature artist Drake would evolve into. Unsteadying the listener with a 5/4 time signature, it warns darkly of a "ban on feeling free" and a girl – Betty – who prayed "for the sky to blow away", suggesting the youthful melancholy in his songs had the potential to develop into something altogether more serious. Much is made of Robert Kirby's string arrangements on Five Leaves Left but here Kirby handed over the reigns to Harry Robinson, whose aim was apparently to recreate the more impressionistic sound of Ravel's Daphnis et ChloĆ©.

3. The Thoughts of Mary Jane

Mary Jane is, of course, slang for marijuana and certainly a hazy, dreamy quality pervades many of Drake's compositions, expressed most vividly here in his descriptions of Mary Jane's "brightly coloured rings". However, the overriding theme in this song is a typical one of Drake's: the mystery of other people. "Who can know the reasons for her smile?" he asks at one point. "What are her dreams when they've journeyed for a mile?" Along with River Man's Betty and the Hazey Janes of Bryter Layter, Drake had a fondness for describing female characters in this unknowable way (his lack of a proper girlfriend during his lifetime, and a reported uncomfortableness with physical intimacy, led some friends to assume he was gay). Kirby's arrangement here – with its prominent lead flute line and warm, buzzing strings – sets the pastoral mood perfectly, although other versions of note include one with Richard Thompson adding electric guitar and an early, laidback take orchestrated by John Hewson, who adds a splash of Bacharach to proceedings.

4. Time of No Reply

Recorded during the same sessions as Five Leaves Left (but only released in 1986 on the outtakes compilation of the same name), Time of No Reply offsets its finger-picked prettiness with a portrait of loneliness to rank alongside Eleanor Rigby. The added weight here is that the subject is no stranger but Drake himself, made forlorn by his inability to connect with the hectic world around him: "The sun went down and the crowd went home / I was left by the roadside all alone / I turned to speak as they went by / But this was the time of no reply."

5. Hazey Jane I

Bryter Layter featured three beautifully arranged instrumentals – Introduction, the title track and Sunday – although with only 10 songs to pick here it seemed profligate to plump for any song bereft of Drake's vocals. Hazey Jane I is as graceful as any of these instrumental pieces – all gentle cymbal splashes and blossoming strings – but it also feature's one of Drake's prettiest melodic lines. "Do you feel like a remnant of something that's past?" he asks (his lyrics were frequently peppered with questions). "Do you find things are moving just a little too fast?" As with The Thoughts of Mary Jane, Drake addresses a female character here, although with his suggestion that she live life at a slower pace, and with an empathy for her lack of purpose in life, it's hard to believe he's not also addressing himself.

6. Northern Sky

In his liner notes for the 1979 Fruit Tree box-set, Arthur Lubow wrote: "Listening to music so beautiful, you are shamed by the ugliness of the world." There is no Nick Drake track as beautiful as Northern Sky, in which his soft voice, poetic gifts and coterie of talented helpers – including John Cale, who was recruited here to add celeste, piano and organ – combined to produce something as close to perfection as music gets. "I've never felt magic as crazy as this," sings Drake at the song's beginning, and for the next four minutes you're left with no choice but to agree.

7. One of These Things First

Choice became a recurring theme for Drake on songs such as Road and Which Will but, as with most of the songs on Bryter Layter, the mood is less morbid here. Over a rolling piano line given the freedom to weave its way in and out of the guitar picking, Drake playfully mourns a series of lives he never lived – from sailor and cook to the more symbolic signpost and clock. You would be forgiven for not giving the lyrics a literal reading, and yet they did arise from a man who was genuinely doubtful of his career choice. Frustrated by his lack of musical success, Drake had considered joining the army – not surprisingly, he failed an interview – and even embarked on an unlikely career as a computer programmer before packing it in almost immediately. Yet if these other lives are what Drake is getting at here, he does it with typically poetic flair.

8. Place to Be

Drake's lyrics often had a painterly quality, and what makes his third album, Pink Moon, so unique is not simply that it dealt with depression, but that it did so in pastel colours rather than the blacks and greys you'd typically expect. Recorded alone over two nights, on acoustic guitar with almost none of the accompaniments that adorned Bryter Layter, it could be stark and unrelenting in places. But for an album written in a state of crippling despair it was often astonishingly pretty. Place to Be, which documents a darkening outlook with the passage of time, is one such moment. Indeed, Drake's vocals sound like they might not quite summon the strength to deliver the final line: "Now I'm weaker than the palest blue / Oh so weak in this need for you."

9. Black Eyed Dog

Drake was apparently unhappy with the four songs he recorded in 1974 following Pink Moon, although his mental state at the time might not have made him the most objective critic. Having said that, it's hard to have an objective view on something as harrowing as Black Eyed Dog, which is without doubt the bleakest thing Drake ever put to tape: "A black eyed dog he called at my door," he sings, with guitar so violently picked it feels like Drake intends to inflict pain on his own fingers. Listening to it can make for an uncomfortable, even unpleasant experience (especially given the knowledge that Drake would die from an overdose of antidepressants less than a year after recording it). Yet no summary of Drake's career would be complete without its inclusion.

10. From the Morning

The final song from Pink Moon is a more fitting bookmark to Drake's career, both musically and lyrically. "A day once dawned and it was beautiful," is the opening line, and if the real world often contained too little of this beauty for Drake to endure, he was at least blessed with the ability to conjure up his own worlds that had beauty in abundance.

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