The Understated Importance of Nick Drake
    • MONDAY, AUGUST 21, 2017

    • Posted by: Jake Holzman

    Nick Drake released just three albums in his all-too-brief career. While he was still alive, these albums went somewhat under the radar, and didn't really create all that much buzz in any noticeable way. His incredibly minuscule commercial success was only worsened by the fact that he despised performing live, being interviewed, or appearing in any promotional material whatsoever. Shortly after the release of his final album, Pink Moon, he tragically died of suicide at the age of 26.

    And yet, despite all of this, Nick Drake remains, to this day, one of the most influential and important folk musicians of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

    Numerous musicians have cited him as being a major influence on their sound, across a wide range of genres. Some of these musicians include, surprisingly enough, R.E.M.'s guitarist Peter Buck and The Cure's frontman Robert Smith. However, if you listen to the music of artists like Bon Iver, Elliott Smith, and Beck, you can hear distinct similarities between their individual styles and that of Drake that are too parallel to be coincidental. Aside from these posthumous influences, Drake's albums have received a ton of posthumous acclaim. All of them have been hailed as masterpieces by numerous publications, and Rolling Stone has included all of them on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

    However, all of this is somewhat beside the point. I'm mainly writing this article because, all too often, whenever I try to tell anyone about Nick Drake, I get the same two worded response: "who's that?" To be honest, the reason this is so disappointing is because there are few artists I've listened to that have moved me in the way that Nick Drake has. In the same way that listening to Elliott Smith is an empathetic experience in which you can vividly feel everything that he felt, Nick Drake's music was so poetic, intimate, and honest that nobody would not benefit from, at the very least, dedicating one afternoon long to giving his three short albums a listen. I am mostly writing this piece because I honestly believe that you can personally benefit from having Nick Drake's albums in your life.

    Those three albums are Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, and Pink Moon. The first two of these albums are centered around Drake's minimalistic acoustic guitar-playing, reserved vocal style, and lavish orchestral accompaniment:

    His final album, Pink Moon, was a riskier move: with the exception of a brief piano melody in the title track, every song on the album featured just Drake's guitar and voice:

    Every single song, on all three of these albums, is brilliantly written. Maybe that's why I prefer Pink Moon over Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter: the album is purely about Drake's talents as a songwriter. Of course, Drake struggled with depression for most of his life, and he tackles that subject head-on with this album. "Place to Be" sees Drake recounting the disillusionment of his adulthood with the care-free bliss of his childhood. "When I was younger, younger than before/ I never saw the truth hanging from the door," Drake sings. "And now I'm older, see it face to face/ now I'm older, got to get up, clean the place." In just four lines, Drake's entire predicament is laid out brilliantly. His use of the word "truth," when describing the happy ignorance of his childhood, sends a tragic message: his impending sadness was not just inevitable, but a reality he simply wasn't aware of yet. Also, the fact that he oddly describes the truth as "hanging" from the door is a purposefully jarring choice of words that conjures a disturbingly prescient image.

    I could pick apart so many of Nick Drake's lyrics in much the same way. Take the title track from that album, for example:

    This one's much more ambiguous. The image of the "Pink Moon" in the lyrics is open to interpretation, but the most common interpretation is that it represents Drake's inability to escape his depression. "I saw it written and I saw it say/ Pink Moon is on its way/ and none of you stand so tall/ Pink Moon's gonna get you all." It's almost like a prophesy detailing his downfall.

    (Super unrelated side note: I'm always reminded of Lars Von Trier's film Melancholia whenever I listen to this song, because I think it has similar symbolism about depression).

    As far as his first two albums are concerned, they're similarly well-written, but much more instrumentally lush. The string arrangements on these albums are absolutely gorgeous, and Nick Drake's experimental song structures were ahead of their time. "River Man" is so inviting, haunting, and well-performed that you might not realize, at first, that Drake wrote the song in an unusual 5/4 time signature.

    The arrangements only improved after Five Leaves Left, on Bryter Layter. "Fly" is one of my favorites from that album. It's beautiful in its simplicity, and it sounds like it belongs in a fantasy movie:

    In case I've given you the impression that Nick Drake purely wrote sombre songs about depression, rest easy: whenever he wrote about feeling happy, it was as poetic as anything else he's written. Listening to "Northern Sky" (with the lyrics in front of you!) is a joyous experience:

    Nick Drake was the perfect songwriter. He was equally talented as a writer, as an instrumentalist, and as a singer. He was one of the greats, whether most people know it or not.

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