The story of British folk singer Nick Drake is an odd and tragic tale in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. Drake released three albums that critics loved, but not many others even noticed. Depressed over the state of his floundering career, Drake ended up killing himself, ironically, by overdosing on antidepressants. But word-of-mouth has helped his albums sell among a loyal, usually college student, following.
Drake has also been name-checked as an inspiration to many bands, most notably indie favorites Belle and Sebastian. Last year his song Pink Moon appeared in ads for Volkswagon and people loved it. After the ad appeared, Drake sold more albums than any other time in his career.
Now, Rykopalm is re-releasing re-mastered versions of Drake’s three albums: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later and Pink Moon. Taken as a whole, the albums show what a talented artist Drake was and how much more he could have accomplished. It also gives fans of Pink Moon a chance to delve further into Drake’s work.
Drake’s first album, Five Years Later, is definitely a debut album. It’s rough in places, the sound of an artist starting to learn his way and hone his craft. It’s filled with the sound of folk singer/songwriter music similar to artists like Cat Stevens or James Taylor, but Drake’s style is darker and more intimate than most others. Drake’s husky tenor fits in well with his acoustic guitar sound and has a shy, intimate feel that makes Drake’s vocals sound as if he’s sharing a secret with the listener. Occasionally though, studio tricks, like layers of strings on some songs drown out Drake’s hushed vocals.
The standout song on this album is the chilling Fruit Tree. The lyrics describe the futile quest for fame, a quest that ultimately consumed Drake, leading to his death. Lyrics like, Forgotten while you’re here/Remembered for a while/A much updated ruin/From a much outdated style are, in hindsight, forebodingly prophetic. The soft, mournful tone of the song conjures the picture of Drake performing at a bar somewhere at closing time, perched on a stool singing to an almost empty house. While most debut albums are filled with bravado and a conquer-the-world attitude, this song shows Drake more mature than his years would suggest.
Critics loved Five Years Later but the public all but ignored it. So Drake went back into the studio in 1970 and recorded his second album, Bryter Later. Second albums generally are bad for most artists (hence the term sophomore slump) and Bryter Later isn’t much of an exception. The folk sound is still there, but electric instruments, drums and strings are piled on to give the album a more commercial feel. But just like in Five Years Later, Drake gets lost in the mix. The best example is the song Fly, in which Drake almost seems to be struggling to be heard over the layers of sappy string sounds. Many of the songs have a more upbeat feel than his first album, but the happiness seems forced and unnatural, as if Drake added it to have a commercial hit.
Similar to Drake’s debut album, Bryter Later fell on deaf ears. Dejected, Drake went back to the studio a last time to record his masterpiece, Pink Moon, released in 1972. Playing by himself with an acoustic guitar and the occasional piano, Drake lets his talent and beauty of his music shine through.
Pink Moon is one of the most heartbreakingly sad albums ever recorded. One can feel the despair and desperation in Drake’s life, near its tragic end, come through in the songs. Of course, the title track that helped to launch Drake’s renaissance is here in all its simple beauty. People who know this song simply from the ad miss the sad roughly recorded piano melody in the middle. On other songs, like the gorgeous Horn or Things Behind The Sun, the stripped-down sound allows more of the emotion in Drake’s songs to pour through and hit the listener in full force, often almost too much to bear.
The aura of sadness reaches every corner of Pink Moon. Drake’s hushed vocals – which sound shy and introverted on previous albums – portray an artist exhausted of life. Songs include flashes of energy and almost a sense of anger, such as the harshly plucked notes in Radio. Pink Moon is a masterpiece of pop music and doesn’t offer a bad song not a bad song. But Drake’s despair comes out so well and beautifully on the album that it is hard to listen to without getting drug down.
Rykopalm has done a great job remastering Drake’s work. The sound has been improved and there are lyrics and photographs included in the liner notes to each album. Slipcases for each CD include a photo of Drake, allowing fans to see the progression and wear his life took on him, from innocent-looking photo on Five Years Later to the slimmed down, cynical and weary looking face on Pink Moon.
These are definitely albums that deserved to be heard, filled with beautiful music and a depth of emotion so rarely scene in music anymore. All three albums show off the amazing talent Nick Drake had, and how much more he could have gone on to do if his life hadn’t reached such a tragic end. These re-releases, though, will ensure Drake’s art won’t be forgotten.