Made to love magic

So on my visit to Austin, I saw a documentary about 70s folk singer Nick Drake, A Skin Too Few. For those of you who love Nick Drake's music, I highly recommend this film (netflix). For those of you who don't know Nick Drake, hey, this blog's for you.

the Nick Drake files: comprehensive site, try the A-Z section
Fan site: interesting quotation section

Any of the above links (even the netflix) will tell you that Nick Drake was an extraordinarily talented musician whose career was cut short by an overdose of anti-depressant medication at 26. Biographies focus on this romantically tragic event - looking for meaning in it, shadows of it in his life leading up to it, hints in his music that it would end this way. The authorities concluded the overdose was intentional; friends and relatives have argued differently, including his sister in the documentary. She's always wanted to think that he threw back the pills with an I'll live through it or I won't, what the hell, let's try. Perhaps we all just wish that his gamble had turned out differently.

It is true that he was troubled. Although interaction with people face-to-face was intimidating for him, he wanted to make a connection through his music. The dismissive reception of it during his lifetime was a crushing blow. In the documentary, his agent tells of his attempts to tour behind the first album. At the time, the music industry was less formal, there was no "concert protocol," you just got up on stool in a bar and started some banter or played loudly enough for people to take notice. But if nothing else, Drake's music is quiet. You have to want to listen to it, it won't beg you. Audiences continued drinking, talking, laughing over him, paid him no mind. He canceled the last three weeks of touring and never tried again.

And what of the music? The first thing you will notice is his voice. Breathy in the vein of Sam Beam and Stuart Murdoch, but where they are solid and innocent, respectively, Drake's voice is translucent as a veil and world-weary. Hovering above the accompaniment, separate from it, lonely. Sends chills up your spine. This spine-tingling, this is the thing: I'm such a sucker for these male singer-songwriters, I listen to loads of them. Most are soothing to me, especially Iron&Wine. Even Jeff Tweedy, with all his imperfections. But Nick Drake agitates me somehow. Leaves me with brow furrowed, breath caught high in my chest, searching for something to make it better.

The first thing you should notice is his guitar playing. Technically excellent right-hand fingerpicking with complicated harmonies. The centerpiece of all the songs, metronomic, flawless. This is what his followers are trying to imitate.

He released three albums during his lifetime: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, Pink Moon. [He was living with his sister when the first one was recorded and announced its completion by dropping it on the bed and giving a "there you are" over his shoulder]. Posthumous compilations: Way to Blue (greatest hits), Time of No Reply (outtakes and "final session," including the track for which this post was titled), the Complete Home Recordings (BBC synopses of albums).

When his complete albums have saddened me too much, I listen to those home demos. Although they are lacking both the polish and the sweeping orchestral arrangements of the studio recordings, they seem more content. Some even have a bluesy swagger. I don't know whether Dylan influenced him or they were both listening to somebody earlier.

Gotta run now, look for a post later in the day with some songs for you to listen to.


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