Nick Drake’s life story is a familiar one, the standard tragedy of the romantic: an artist who produces brilliant, moving work but receives little recognition for it until after he dies. The influence of Drake’s style – the bittersweet, almost mournful folk guitarist with a strange but enchanting voice – can be traced in artists ranging from Elliott Smith to The Black Crowes to Elton John. Yet Drake’s three albums sold poorly in his lifetime, and he plunged deeper into depression after each misfire until overdosing, in 1974, on the very antidepressants meant to pull him back from the abyss. It was only later that he became a “man of fame,” his popularity steadily growing through the 1980s and 90s until culminating, in 2000, with the use of Pink Moon’s title track in a popular Volkswagon commercial – after which, incredibly, more copies of Drake’s work were sold in one year than in the previous 30.
What's new, then, after all this time? In addition to the posthumous release, in 1986, of unreleased studio-recorded tracks, Time of No Reply (now retitled Made to Love Magic), Drake’s estate will be releasing a new album in July. Family Tree is a collection culled from cassette recordings from Drake’s home in Tanworth-In-Arden (near Stratford-on-Avon). Most of these songs — originals, including versions of a few which eventually appeared on albums, as well as traditional folk songs – have been available on the Internet in bootleg form for some time.
For those looking for early promise of Drake’s eventual greatness, some of these recordings hit the mark, while others miss widely. The latter includes “Blossom,” a boring tune which even Drake’s rich voice can do little to enliven. Though its lyrics vaguely echo the simplicity of the enigmatic and remarkable “Pink Moon,” the chorus – “And the blossom / and the blossom / and the blossom” – comes across as insipid rather than parsimonious. Likewise, “Cocaine Blues,” an oddly merry take on the traditional lament, shows that Drake is better suited to finding the subtle splendor in melancholy (as in “Fly” and so many others) than turning sadness into false cheer.
Still, there is more than enough here to justify a purchase, not least of which being the two beautiful (and previously unavailable) songs written and sung by Nick’s mother, Molly Drake. From Drake himself, surprisingly mature originals like “Rain” and “They’re Leaving Me Behind” also show the seeds of the magnificent musician to come. The hypnotic vocals seem only enhanced by the hissing of the cassette. And Drake’s youthful, nearly perfect songwriting reminds us, as his full life’s story eventually would, that the world we live in is sad, cruel, unfair – and, yet, more often than not, strangely beautiful.