It is 40 years since the death of my favourite British singer/songwriter. Few artists have ever had the ability to create music as poignant, wonderful, and enduring as Nick Drake. Dead from an antidepressant overdose (likely to be intentional) at the age of 26, he has become, as long-time friend and arranger Robert Kirby stated, “the patron saint of the miserable”. To reduce Drake to this would be to do his music a disservice – certainly sometimes melancholy, but often uplifting (particularly the album Bryter Layter), and always staggeringly beautiful.
I recall vividly the first time I heard Drake, a seminal moment as it was for so many of his fans. For me, it was in my Dad’s car, and the album was his debut, Five Leaves Left. What hit me was the fragility of both his voice, a thing of overwhelmingly serene splendour, and his guitar playing. The work was delicate, the gentle fingerpicking floating, so delicate that one felt that a noise or movement could scare it away. And the songs. ‘Time Has Told Me’, ‘Riverman’, ‘Three Hours’ – they were sublime. The sadness was evident, but often the best music has that element to it. Radiohead, Scott Walker, Neil Young – they find the beauty in sadness. Drake did it better than anyone.
It was devastating that my subsequent voyage of discovery was so brief. Drake finished his third, final, and in my opinion best, album Pink Moon at the age of 23. He then withdrew, crushed by his perceived failure to have an impact. Pink Moon is, in many ways, a fitting elegy to the man. At under 30 minutes, it is all too brief, it leaves you wanting more, wondering where it could have gone next. Most importantly, it is indescribably stunning, the finest example of Drake coalescing despair and wonder, heartache and beauty. When the final song, the exquisite ‘From the Morning’, closes, you are speechless. You just want more, but you know that what you have experienced in such a short time is like nothing else. Drake’s time was tragically brief, but what he did with it was magnificent.
He was harrowed by depression, expressed in the perfect ‘Place to Be’ and ‘Black Eyed Dog’ (Churchill’s description of misery), but Drake had the capacity to feel love, joy, wonderment, and all other positive sensations. In Bryter Layter’s ‘Northern Sky’, he created what is, in my opinion, the greatest ever love song. Maybe he is something of a ‘patron saint for the miserable’, but he is so much more.
But don’t take my word for it – listen to his music. His whole life’s recordings can be completed within three hours, but what a three hours.