Nick Drake

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Five Leaves Left (1969), 7.5/10
Bryter Layter (1970), 7/10
Pink Moon (1972), 8/10

Before he died in 1974, Nick Drake managed to record only three albums, but that meagre repertory is enough to rank him among the most influential singer-songwriters of all time. He turned the tables on rock and folk music, projecting emotions outside in instead of inside out. If rock music had emphasized the emotional aspect of music in ever more creative ways, Drake did the opposite: his music seems to cancel out the emotional factor, his voice sounds neutral, anemic and indifferent, the arrangements are spectral and almost "silent". Silence is, indeed, the ultimate referent of Drake's "minimalism". Drake had little to say, and he said it using minimal means. Surprisingly (and this was Drake's great discovery), his almost voiceless whisper conveyed stronger emotions than most magniloquent music. Drake's lost, tenuous, taciturn manner scoured the terminal states of melancholy, angst and despair for a reason to live this life. There was something terrifying in those frail notes: Drake's music was the equivalent of a suicide letter. Drake fumbled blindfolded on the edge of the abyss, and his songs were the thoughts that accompanied him while waiting for the fall. The lyrical, elegiac and naive Five Leaves Left (1969) was already representative of the drama that developed via Bryter Layter (1970), mildly revitalized by soul and rhythm'n'blues spices, and that reached its climax with Pink Moon (1972), Drake's masterpiece and one of the most depressing albums of all time.
(Translated from my original Italian text by DommeDamian)

Nicholas Rodney Drake did not have a long career and certainly did not have a prolific career, but his influence on the singer-songwriters of the 90s (especially) was immense. Rock music had always been highly emotional musically, and the golden age of 1967-1969 had done nothing but enhance that emotion in ever more creative ways, leaving behind the refrain of the Beatles melodic song. Launching into titanic harmonic feats, Nick took the opposite route instead. His music seems to completely cancel the emotional factor. His voice has a neutral tone, a little indifferent and a little anemic, which the arrangements (ghostly to say the least) help to make it even more "silent". His "minimalism" was the antithesis not only of the principles of rock music but also of the intellectual attitude of most of his contemporaries. He had little to say and he said it with the minimum of means. The fact is that Nick Drake's almost voiceless whisper ended up conveying, paradoxically, precisely the most extreme emotions. The faint and lost voice sounded out the terminal states of melancholy, anguish, despair. There is something truly chilling about those notes without any source of force: Nick's music was the musical equivalent of a suicide note. He groped aimlessly on the edge of the abyss, and his songs were the thoughts that accompanied him as he awaited the fall. To this "existential" tragedy is added the artistic one: Nick had very few fans alive. Many years had to pass after his death for his art to be re-evaluated. In a sense, in 1974 Nick Drake died of misunderstanding.

The short career of Nick Drake (born in Burma in 1948) consists of just three short records, recorded two years apart starting in 1968.

Five Leaves Left (Island, 1969), recorded while still a student at Cambridge, features a tenderly naive style. With a calm and meditative tone Nick reveals himself to be a lyrical and elegiac poet, dedicated to the search for wisdom through a hermetic sound that is married to a very colloquial language. Not at all self-indulgent, his songs make use of subdued orchestral accompaniments (provided by another student, Robert Kirby), as well as the almost jingle-jangle chimes of his guitar. The resulting fatalistic atmosphere is sometimes postwar film-noir (Fruit TreeWay To BlueRiver ManThree Hours, and Cello Song).

Nick Drake's formula is expressed more clearly by the second album, Bryter Layter (Island, 1970): he combines the magical and introverted rhythm and blues of Van Morrison with the psychic and folk acrobatics of Tim Buckley. An increasingly tenuous language explains the sweet adolescent sadness, which is not yet an existential crisis but is still tender and dreamy. This is how superb odes are born like Northern Sky and At The Chime of The City Clock . Songs like Hazey Jane are closer to jazz cocktail and night-club soul than folk, but the sound is more fruit of the collaborators (John Cale, Richard Thompson, Robert Kirby's orchestra and two jazz players) than by Nick himself.

His style is the most radical (ie minimal) on Pink Moon (Island, 1972). Nick Drake sings with no accompaniment other than guitar (and piano solo in Pink Moon). The record seems to be the result of an existential travail that is increasingly suffered. His adolescent fairy tales have turned into cold breaths that exhale an acute sense of desolation, indulge in the suggestion of solitude, obsessed with the transience of all things. The crisis has reached the point of no return: the harmonic texture is deboned, frail and gaunt, the singing is a humble whisper, the conciseness of the pieces is manic, the lyrics are indecipherable, bizarre, hallucinated. The salient passages are precisely those of only four lines, cryptic and penetrating aphorisms, fragments of a now dried up delirium, confessions that seem unburied corpses, in which the guitar often has the melancholy toll of a clock (Pink Moon), Donovan-style nursery rhymes (Road), cataleptic litanies (Which Will), archaic blues (Know), anguished street folk (Parasite). The crepuscular serenades of Place To Be and From The Morning are the only songs that unfold in the rhythm of the great outdoors; but they are ghostly declarations of love that live on a schizoid romanticism. The bleak and majestic apex of Nick's philosophy is found in the surreal ruminations of Things Behind The Sun, one of the most poetic, depressed songs of all time, a terrifying parable about solitude in a crowd.

Nick Drake was being treated at a psychiatric hospital when the record came out. The following year he decided to abandon music and turn to computer science. He was found dead on November 25, 1974, from an overdose of antidepressant, probably a suicide.

Time of No Reply (Hannibal, 1986) collects ten unpublished works. Fruit Tree (Hannibal, 1986) collects Drake's three albums. Family Tree (2007) collects material that Drake recorded before the first album.

Nick Drake non ebbe una lunga carriera e certamente non ebbe una carriera prolifica, ma la sua influenza sui singer-songwriter degli anni '90 e` stata immensa. La musica rock era sempre stata una musicalmente altamente emotiva, e l'epoca d'oro degli anni 1967-1969 non aveva fatto altro che esaltare quell'emotivita` in maniere sempre piu` creative, lasciandosi alle spalle il ritornello della canzone melodica alla Beatles e lanciandosi in titaniche imprese armoniche. Drake compi` invece il percorso opposto. La sua musica sembra annullare completamente il fattore emotivo. La sua voce possiede un tono neutro, un po' indifferente e un po' anemico, che gli arrangiamenti (spettrali a dir poco) contribuiscono a rendere ancor piu` "silenziosa". Il suo "minimalismo" era l'antitesi non solo dei principi della musica rock ma anche dell'atteggiamento intellettuale di gran parte dei suoi contemporanei. Drake aveva poco da dire e lo diceva con il minimo di mezzi. Fatto e` che il bisbiglio quasi afono di Drake finiva per convogliare, paradossalmente, proprio le emozioni piu` estreme. La voce tenue e smarrita di Drake scandagliava gli stati terminali della malinconia, dell'angoscia, della disperazione. C'e` qualcosa di davvero agghiacciante in quelle note senza force: la musica di Drake era l'equivalente musicale di una lettera di suicidio. Drake brancolava senza meta sul bordo dell'abisso, e le sue canzoni erano i pensieri che lo accompagnavano nell'attesa della caduta.
A questa tragedia "esistenziale" si somma quella artistica: Drake ebbe ben pochi fan in vita. Dovettero passare molti anni dalla sua morte perche' la sua arte venisse rivalutata. In un certo senso, nel 1974 Nick Drake mori` di incomprensione.

La breve carriera di Nick Drake (nato in Birmania nel 1948) consta di appena tre dischi, incisi a distanza di due anni l'uno dall'altro a partire dal 1968.

Five Leaves Left (Island, 1969), registrato quando era ancora uno studente a Cambridge, presenta uno stile teneramente naive. Con tono pacato e meditativo Drake si rivela poeta lirico ed elegiaco, dedito alla ricerca della saggezza attraverso un suono ermetico che si sposa pero` ad un linguaggio molto colloquiale. Per nulla auto-indulgenti, le sue canzoni si avvalgono di dimessi accompagnamenti orchestrali (forniti da un altro studente, Robert Kirby), oltre ai rintocchi quasi jingle-jangle della sua chitarra. L'atmosfera fatalista che ne risulta e` talvolta da film-noir del Dopoguerra (Fruit Tree, Way To Blue, River Man, Three Hours, Cello Song).

La formula di Drake e` espressa piu` chiaramente dal secondo album, Bryter Layter (Island, 1970): Drake coniuga il rhythm and blues magico e introverso di Van Morrison con le acrobazie psichiche e vocali di Tim Buckley. Un linguaggio sempre piu` tenue spiega la dolce tristezza adolescenziale, che non e` ancora crisi esistenziale ma e` ancora tenera sognante. Nascono cosi` superbe odi come Northern Sky e At The Chime Of The City Clock. Canzoni come Hazey Jane sono piu` vicine al cocktail jazz e al soul da night-club che al folk, ma il sound e` piu` frutto dei collaboratori (John Cale, Richard Thompson, l'orchestra di Robert Kirby e due jazzisti) che di Drake.

Il suo stile e` piu` radicale (ovvero minimale) su Pink Moon (Island, 1972). Drake canta senza altro accompagnamento che la chitarra e il piano. Il disco sembra il frutto di un travaglio esistenziale sempre piu` sofferto. Le sue favole adolescenziali si sono trasformate in soffi freddi che esalano un senso acuto di desolazione, indulgono nella suggestione della solitudine, ossessionate dalla caducita` di tutte le cose. La crisi e` arrivata al punto di non ritorno: il tessuto armonico e` disossato, gracile e smunto, il canto e` un bisbiglio dimesso, la concisione dei brani ha del maniacale, i testi sono indecifrabili, bislacchi, allucinati. I brani salienti sono proprio quelli di soli quattro versi, aforismi criptici e penetranti, frammenti di un delirio ormai prosciugato, confessioni che sembrano cadaveri insepolti, nei quali la chitarra ha spesso il rintocco malinconico di un orologio: ballate apocalittiche e surreali (Pink Moon), filastrocche alla Donovan (Road), litanie catalettiche (Which Will), blues dall'incedere arcaico (Know), folk angosciati di strada (Parasite). Le serenate crepuscolari di Place To Be e From The Morning sono le uniche canzoni che si distendono nel ritmo dei grandi spazi aperti; ma sono spettrali dichiarazioni d'amore che vivono di un romanticismo schizoide. L'apice tetro e maestoso della filosofia di Drake si trova nelle elucubrazioni surreali di Things Behind The Sun, una delle canzoni piu` depresse di ogni tempo, parabola terrificante sulla solitudine in mezzo alla folla.

Drake era in cura presso un ospedale psichiatrico quando usci` il disco. L'anno dopo decise di abbandonare la musica e darsi all'informatica. Venne trovato morto il 25 novembre 1974, probabilmente suicida.

Time Of No Reply (Hannibal, 1986) raccoglie dieci inediti. Fruit Tree (Hannibal, 1986) raccoglie i tre album di Drake.

Family Tree (2007) collects material that Drake recorded before the first album.

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