Most people first heard of singer-songwriter Nick Drake a few years back when Volkswagen, in an effort to sell its sharp new cars to romantic urbanites, used his 1972 song “Pink Moon,” a lilting ode to the inevitability of death that was written just two years before Drake died at 26 of an overdose of antidepressants, in one of its commercials. Before then, Drake’s music had been fairly obscure except to in-the-know record collectors and musicians. But the fact that his records never sold more than a few thousand didn’t diminish Drake’s artistic influence in the ensuing years. As with the Velvet Underground, whose records were initially greeted with almost nonexistent sales, it would seem that most of Drake’s records were purchased by fellow musicians (such as admitted fans Paul Weller and Robert Smith) who let Drake’s sound help to shape their own influential work. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine such deeply confessional artists as Belle and Sebastian or Elliott Smith without the residual sway of Drake’s influence.
Now, the newly released Drake anthology, Family Tree, a compilation of early tape recordings found at the late artist’s home, gives us an intimate look at Drake’s own influences. Assembled by the artist’s estate and family, it’s a telling combination of early demos interspersed with traditional blues songs, performed for what appears to be the sheer enjoyment of playing. It is an intimate and enlightening affair.
Drake’s sound has always been an intensely contemplative and melodic folk rock, as if he’s the overseas cousin of Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan. But while he undoubtedly pays homage to American folk and blues, Drake charts his own course lyrically, evoking the rich English countryside of his youth with images of rain, stars and dark misty nights. On his three proper studio albums, the haunting imagery was further bolstered by string arrangements, giving the sound an additional emotional punch. Here on Family Tree, however, the songs are suddenly stripped bare. For most of the tracks, it is just acoustic guitar and singing, demonstrating what an innovative and accomplished guitarist Drake was. But while the low-fidelity recording and bare arrangements add a pressing intimacy to the songs, I actually missed the lush arrangements of his later studio recordings.
The first time I listened to this album, I was surely in an appropriate amount of pain. But looking back, perhaps not the kind of doomed, chain-smoking, romantic heartache Drake’s music is so entirely perfect for. Instead, I was experiencing the simmering agony of a 12-inch surgical incision across my stomach. Tired of reclining on the couch, I was attempting to drive to Palm Springs, even though I was out of pain pills. The result was a combination of rage and despair that would have caused me to view both Sgt. Pepper’s and Exile on Main St. as massive artistic underachievements. That’s not to say I disliked the new Drake record, but it didn’t grab me like the first time I had listened to his stunning finale, “Pink Moon,” years back.
But upon further listens, this new record has some truly shining moments — a cautionary blues interpretation of Los Angeles songwriter Robin Frederick’s “Been Smokin’ Too Long” (covered years later by the band Placebo). Even better is a stark and beautiful version of Drake’s song “Day Is Done,” accompanied only by guitar, Drake even laughing quietly to himself midway through, as if playing in his bedroom late one night. But the record’s finest moment, and reason enough to get it, is the demo for perhaps Drake’s most haunting song, “Way to Blue.” While the later studio version, backed by a bittersweet string arrangement, is incredibly forceful, this rediscovered interpretation, with Drake playing an echoing old piano, is a work of heart-wrenching beauty.
This may well not be the record with which to introduce someone to Nick Drake. A more suitable candidate would be his last and most fully formed work, Pink Moon. Listening to Family Tree is more like riffling through a box of your girlfriend’s old childhood pictures. There are those surprisingly awkward junior-high photos with the braces, gangly build and unsightly blemishes, but still, underneath it all, you can see the seeds of all that would eventually capture your heart.
NICK DRAKE | Family Tree | Tsunami LG