Monday, December 10, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1208: Nick Drake

After two albums in a row from the “new to me” section of my collection, I turned once again to a random roll from the main stacks.

Disc 1208 is… Pink Moon
Artist: Nick Drake

Year of Release: 1972

What’s up with the Cover? This picture defies logic. Tea cups don’t float in space, daggers don’t fly out of playing cards and as for that blue-lipped, red-nosed disembodied head, the less said the better. At least they got one thing right: the moon is, as everyone knows, made of cheese. Science!

How I Came To Know It: I was reviewing a list of top 100 indie folk albums of all time on Paste Magazine and this one was on it. I checked it out and liked what I heard.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have one Nick Drake album, so it can’t stack up.

Ratings:  3 stars

Nick Drake was an English folk singer-songwriter who made only three albums, none of which made a huge impact during his short life. In 1976 Drake would tragically take his own life, four years after releasing “Pink Moon.” Despite this, the record has become one of those that may not be famous in the mainstream, but is well-loved by music aficionados, critics and modern folk artists alike.

Given its much-vaunted reputation I was expecting “Pink Moon” to blow me away and while it was good, it fell short of my lofty expectations. I have a feeling this understated “yeah, it was good” reaction will fall well short of Drake’s devotees, but I’ve got to keep it real. I liked this record, but I didn’t love it.

Drake has influenced many artists that came after him, and I can hear him strongly in modern indie bands like Belle & Sebastian. Twenty years after the record was released Lucinda Williams did a cover of “Which Will” and filled it with all the raw hurt of the original. Nick Drake’s version has a lovely echo to the guitar work, and a light vulnerable vocal delivery as he sings a weary tune of uncertainty and lost love.

“Pink Moon” feels like the soundtrack to some indie coming of age movie. Listening to it, I felt like I was watching a montage of a character doing pale and wan activities like walking around in a trench coat with leaves blowing around him, or maybe staring at his own reflection in a rain-streaked window.

There is plenty to like about the record. It manages to be both emotionally raw and relaxing at the same time. This starts with Drake’s guitar playing, which is characterized by gentle strumming mixed with carefully plucked notes. His playing is idyllic, and soft around the edges. This is music for lying on a bed of soft heather and watching clouds float by.

Drake’s voice matches to his playing well. He has a plaintive whisper to his delivery. It has the whimsy of sixties folk, but also the worn-down weariness of the seventies. There is a deep sadness as well, but you can see he also finds a beauty at the core of his sadness. His suffering feels very near the surface, and hearing him sing I felt bad thinking about his untimely end.

With all that sadness, it would be easy for Drake to slip into the maudlin but he is so emotionally honest it never happens. If anything, you just sink down into the songs and lose yourself in them. It makes for a pleasant sulk that invites your mind to wander and lets you contemplate your cares in a broad and diffuse way that blunts their impact.

The record is more atmospheric than narrative, and there were times when I wished the songs would develop a bit more, either narratively or melodically. Instead you get a series of mood pieces, few of which are more than three minutes long. It quietens your mind well enough, but it didn’t cause me to reach down and re-examine the meaning of life, which was a bit of a let-down, given the record’s sterling reputation.

The entire album is only 11 songs and 28 minutes long and it is over before you feel fully immersed in it. There are even a couple of pure instrumentals which are pretty, but felt more like those little clips you get on a movie soundtrack – again, better for watching someone walk in the rain than to evoke the image in its own.

In the end I wanted this record to be more than it was, but it was still a solid folk record by an artist that succumbed to his own inner demons, even as he converted them to things of beauty for those he left behind.

Best tracks: Pink Moon, Place to Be, Which Will, Parasite

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