There are only so many artists who emerge fully formed on a debut album. Nick Drake, who was born in Burma and raised in England, was one of those rare talents. The cover of Five Leaves Left depicts the elegant, long-limbed singer/songwriter at a window in Hampstead Heath, bathed in darkness, clad in an ill-fitting jacket, peering pensively at the sunshine beyond his window. He can see it, but he can’t quite touch it. From the first song, “Time Has Told Me,” which features Richard Thompson, it’s clear that Drake has a distinctive style: the velvety voice, deliberate guitar fingering, unusual tuning, graceful pace and impressionistic lyrics. But most of all the sadness. The genre is folk, but Drake incorporated other elements, including pop, jazz, classical (Bach, Handel, Ravel) and poetry (Blake, Rimbaud, Verlaine) such that he transcended the description, forging a path that Mark Eitzel, Jeff Buckley (whose father, Tim, was one of Drake’s early influences), Elliott Smith and other starry-eyed dreamers would walk down in the decades to follow. Drake’s presence can also be sensed in groups like Belle and Sebastian, especially on the bittersweet 1997 release If You’re Feeling Sinister.
Drake was discovered in 1968 by Ashley Hutchings, the bass player for Fairport Convention, who alerted producer/talent scout/label impresario Joe Boyd (the Incredible String Band, Pink Floyd, R.E.M.), who signed the then 20-year-old student to a production deal. Upon the 1969 release of Five Leaves Left (which wouldn’t reach the US until 1976), Drake dropped out of Cambridge, where he had been studying English. Classmate Robert Kirby, who would go on to work with Richard and Linda Thompson, Sandy Denny and John Cale, did arrangements for Five Leaves Left and its follow-up.
The more ornate Bryter Layter was a small step backward. Drake shows increased confidence in his singing and playing, but the music that backs him is brighter and busier than before, making for an odd contrast with his dark, hushed vocals. (When he attempts to compensate by singing in a higher register, it just sounds strained.) The female backing vocals, saxophone and samba rhythm of “Poor Boy” are particularly jarring, as if Drake had wandered into a Van Morrison or Traffic session and tried to make the best of it. On the other hand, the baroque jazz of the lilting “Northern Sky,” with John Cale on organ, piano and celeste, gets the balance right. Richard Thompson plays lead guitar on “Hazy Jane II” and his Fairport bandmates Dave Mattacks and Dave Pegg are the rhythm section on several tracks here. Overall, Bryter Layter — which contains three instrumentals — is nonetheless Drake at his most upbeat and accessible. It’s also the least cohesive, most uncharacteristic and controversial of his three original albums. (A year later, Island released Nick Drake, a largely unnecessary compilation of the two preceding albums.)
Time has been kindest to Drake’s third release, Pink Moon. With Boyd off to Los Angeles to work for Warner Bros., Drake recorded it with his engineer, John Wood, in two nights. Although it clocks in at only 28 minutes, the album is a masterpiece. Already morose, Drake had drifted into a deep depression and holds nothing back about his despair. These are his finest compositions, rendered in the spare, unadorned manner that best suited his distinctive voice and John Fahey-like guitar playing. After dropping the tapes off at Island, without a word of explanation as to what they were, he dropped out of the music business. For the next couple of years, Drake drifted from place to place (including London and Paris), job to job (including a short-lived stint as a computer programmer), but nothing fit. He ended up spending more time in his bedroom in Tanworth-in-Arden than anywhere else, listening to music (mostly Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos), reading (Camus) and retreating deeper into his own world. On November 25, 1974, his mother found him dead from an overdose of the anti-depressant Tryptizol. Nick Drake was 26. Although he didn’t leave a suicide note, the gorgeous, haunting “Pink Moon,” and the album it’s on, may as well serve. “I saw it written and I saw it say / Pink moon is on its way / And none of you stand so tall / Pink moon gonna get ye all.”
Although Pink Moon was his last full-length album, it wasn’t his final musical document. In February 1974, he recorded four songs, including “Black Eyed Dog,” in which he is stalked by the figure of Death itself. Drake recounts the tale in a cracked, distant voice that seems barely tethered to this earth. Nine months later, he was gone. These missives from a whole other realm of hopelessness would not receive an official release until five years later, when they were appended to Pink Moon for inclusion in the Fruit Tree boxed set.
With the Drake revival getting in full swing in the mid-’80s, Island released Heaven in a Wild Flower: An Exploration of Nick Drake, a fine 14-track selection that doesn’t include anything from his final session. However, the subsequent 16-track Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake trumps it.
The 1986 Hannibal reissue of Fruit Tree added a 14-song disc of previously unreleased material. Time of No Reply (which was released on its own the following year) can almost be considered Drake’s fourth album. It brackets his career, with demos from 1967-’68 (including a version of “The Thoughts of Mary Jane” featuring Richard Thompson on electric guitar) as well as the four songs from his 1974 coda.
Drake was the man of the hour yet again as the covers began to proliferate in the 1990s, most notably Lucinda Williams’ poignant “Which Will” (from 1992’s Sweet Old World). Then, after “Pink Moon” appeared in a 1999 Volkswagen commercial, sales of that album took off, leading Drake’s music to be used in another commercial (Nike used “Know”) and the release of a combined EP/book The Sweet Suggestions of the Pink Moon, containing four Drake compositions recorded as demos by a young Elton John under the direction of Boyd prior to Drake’s sessions for Five Leaves Left. In addition to Drake’s music being included on a number of film soundtracks and tribute albums, he inspired Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Saw Nick Drake” (from 2000’s A Star for Bram), a biography, a BBC documentary and even a movie named after his song “Things Behind the Sun.” At this rate, it seems unlikely that the timeless, ageless music of the singular Nick Drake, who feared obscurity more than death, will ever go out of style.