Saturday, 30 March 2013

Nick Drake - 'Fruit Tree' (Hannibal)

What can we say about Nick Drake now? Or rather, what does Nick Drake 'mean'? I'm not above asking banal questions like this - what does an aspect of culture (popular or otherwise) mean? I'm not pretending to be Chuck Klostermann here, but when it comes to writing about music that everyone already knows, I feel more interested in the larger cultural context rather than simply describing the music and adding to the plethora of writings already out there. There's no answer to this question, of course; Nick Drake probably symbolises lots of different things to lots of different people. He didn't mean much in his day, which is part of the whole thing. In many ways, Drake is the archetype of the 'misunderstood genius' who only finds success posthumously. There's plenty of those now, and in the folk genre specifically, the last decade has been cluttered with them. Where Drake ranks among this group depends on one's personal taste, of course. It's hard to reconcile my interest in Nick Drake when I was 17 (who was one of the first 'folk' artists I investigated, I think after hearing Pink Moon somewhere) with where the whole genre rests with me now. And ironically, I couldn't really tolerate the slicked-out Joe Boyd production of Bryter Layter back then while now it's the only one I ever pull out and listen to anymore. But Drake's value, meaning, whatever is inseparable from his personal darkness; no one can get anything out of this music without an appreciation of melancholy. Whether he committed suicide or not, he infused something into all of these songs. When the fingerpicking wasn't special, there's a genuine trepidation in his voice ('River Man' is a good example of this). And as saccharine as it may feel now after a decade of Volkswagen commercials, there's still something that brings me to my knees in the pure beauty of some of these cuts. Yes, not everything needs to have a slicing psychedelic guitar solo or surrealist musique concrete collage in the middle to tick my boxes. I think Drake's music, for many people, has taken on something mythical that isn't really there. Five Leaves Left isn't a million miles away from other British neo-folk albums of its time - maybe there's stronger songwriting and a more mellow vibe than Dando Shaft or The Trees - but the formula isn't anything innovative (and some of the musicians, like Pentangle's Danny Thompson, came from that scene). Bryter Layter takes things up a notch, attempting to be more commercial perhaps but wisely involving Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks and John Cale. It's here that the songwriting peaks, with both 'Hazey Jane' songs as close to perfect as I've ever heard. Somehow it manages to achieve stunning melodic beauty without a trace of the saccharine -- not many could get away with 'Fly', but  it's total magic to me. And then Pink Moon. The little book included with this box set is actually a bit hard to read because it's written so badly, but there's numerous mentions about how sad and difficult Pink Moon is. And I'm not denying that, but somehow I've never quite put it up there in my all-time depression pantheon. Maybe again it's the fucking Volkswagen commercials, or maybe it's cause this has become such a standard barometer for the 'stark downer folk' genre that I've stopped even thinking about it. Which brings me back to having to write about all three of these albums (I have pretty much nothing to say about the odds-and-ends collection, which didn't even collect everything cause those Tamworth-on-Arden sessions surfaced later, and Nick Drake doesn't really work in Incesticide mode, though 'Black Eyed Dog' is awesome) which in some ways just hit my ears and fall right off without sinking in. Maybe Drake is an artist who I like and appreciate but whose music never really felt like it spoke to me -- he's for everyone else, like the Beatles or AC/DC, and that's cool but I'm not going to feel a strong personal connection. But does anyone feel a connection to him? Sure, there's some moving songs here, but I can't say they've ever been more than illustrative of someone else's condition for me. This is music I appreciate and maybe even love, but when I'm brought to tears it's at the construction of it - not because it speaks for me. Maybe this is just my problem, but if others could have connected with Drake maybe he would have been happier. See, there's the tortured genius thing again - it's so essential to his identity as an artist, that I don't know if it's because we've grafted it onto him or because his music grafted it onto us. Either way, he actually left a perfect amount of material (especially compared to some of the other guys of that time) - there's just enough Nick Drake, not too little, not too much. If it were possible to build the legacy on only the music, I think he'd be regarded on the same level as Bert Jansch - which is a pretty high regard.

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