Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Nick Drake's Treasury

The annals of rock-music history are speckled with the premature deaths of otherwise prodigious singer-songwriters who have potentially rewarding careers ahead of them. There are a few obvious examples of this rather disturbing tendency. Jimi Hendrix was already being hailed as the definitive guitar deity of all time when he choked on a nasty mixture of vodka and vomit in September 1970. Jim Morrison had more or less cemented his reputation as a freewheeling, Dionysian rock star in every sense of the phrase, when he expired from a heart attack in a Paris hotel in 1971. And Kurt Cobain bought himself an instant one-way ticket to the Great Gig in the Sky when he decided to blow his face away with a shotgun in April 1994.

And then, there's the still-undecided case of English folk-rock troubadour Nick Drake. While the official coroner's report was that Drake deliberately downed a whole bottle of sleeping pills and never woke up again on the night of November 26, 1974, his friends and family still maintained that it was an accidental overdose (even as he was known to be suffering from clinical depression). But whatever the real cause of Drake's death might be, there is no denying the sheer power and beauty of his music, which went shamefully unappreciated in his lifetime. Thankfully, this situation has largely been rectified in recent years, starting with the utilisation of his haunting "Pink Moon" for a Volkswagen TV advertisement in 1999, followed by the remasterings and reissues of his virtuosic three albums (1969's "Five Leaves Left", 1970's "Bryter Layter" and 1972's "Pink Moon"), and culminating in the recent publication of "Made to Love Magic", a collection of previously unreleased archival material.

"A Treasury" marks the second official single-disc attempt at compiling the highlights of Drake's oeuvre (1994's "Way to Blue" being the maiden project), and while it's a laudable, praiseworthy enterprise that's conceived for purely introductory purposes, listeners will quickly discover that the offerings here are simply too paltry. To fully appreciate Drake's artistry, one needs to invest in the three studio albums, or better yet, go the whole hog and procure the exhaustive four-disc "Fruit Tree" box set, which includes the three records, plus "Time of No Reply", an illuminating survey of outtakes from the authorised recording sessions. Nonetheless, if you're looking for a quick synopsis of Drake's music, this works to a certain extent, although the usual caveat comes attached here: there are a few essential selections that are inexplicably missing in action (this is reason enough to compel you to look for the parent albums).

As expected, most of the familiar Drake standards are anthologised here. The forlorn baroque strings of "River Man" still sounds painfully poignant after all this while, and its metaphorical William Wordsworth-inspired wordplay (e.g. "She thought of summer rain, calling for her mind again, she lost the pain and stayed for more") remains one of the best lyric set to music in British rock. "Cello Song" is thoughtful and pensive, a brooding love letter to a departed lover that would set the template for later like-minded Drake classics. "Northern Sky" catches Drake in an atypically blissful mood, with its effervescent aura, aptly backed by The Velvet Underground's John Cale on electric piano.

Drake's jazz sensibilities are revealed in the mockingly cheery "Poor Boy", a skilful study in post-bop inflections, complete with freeform alto-saxophone lines. The jaw-dropping "Way to Blue" takes a leaf out of Bach's abstractly structured "Air in G Major" aria and utilises a similarly airy string backing to underpin a tale of chronic despondency. The desolate "Fruit Tree" is chillingly prophetic in its knowingly autobiographical lines ("Fame is but a fruit tree, so very unsound, it can never flourish, till its stalk is in the ground", "Life is but a memory, happened long ago, theatre full of sadness, for a long-forgotten show"), and could almost be a fitting musical epitaph for Drake.

There are also a handful of tunes that might not be immediately recognisable to the Drake neophyte, but are vital classics in their own right. "Road" is a stately ballad couched in a cluster of asymmetrical guitar lines, "Place to Be" is a muted, slow-motion reflection best suited to soundtrack an overcast morning on the Yorkshire moors, and "From the Morning" is a calm, collected observation of the wonders of nature, an almost ideal musical accompaniment to the "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" chapter in Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows". Of course, the absolutely harrowing "Black Eyed Dog" is present, a bone-chilling prediction of imminent death that sounds too close for comfort, even after innumerable repeat listenings ("Black eyed dog he called at my door, black eyed dog he knew my name").

While "A Treasury" isn't exactly a comprehensive précis of Drake's magic, it does serve as a handy musical digest that briefly describes what made Drake the deified figure he has become, more than thirty years after he departed from this world. But as mentioned before, there are simply too many crucial tracks that have been excluded from this retrospective, and the only way to remedy this state of affairs is to get the entire Drake back catalogue. At the end of the day, "A Treasury" should be seen as what it really is: a functional summation of the brief but phenomenal career of a truly exceptional act, and a terrific inducement to explore the rest of Drake's remarkable catalogue.


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