The Underappreciation of Nick Drake

Have you ever heard of Nick Drake? If this post wasn’t categorized as “Music,” would you have any idea that Nick Drake was involved in music? I’m assuming the answers to both questions is “no” for the vast majority of folks reading this. And that’s a shame. It really is. Nick Drake was influential, made three albums in his lifetime, and died at the sad age of 26. His most popular song was “Pink Moon,” which has been featured in a handful of commercials, tv shows, and movies in the past few years and can be heard here.

The Man

Nick Drake was born in 1948 in England. He played piano, saxophone, guitar, and according to at least one source, several other woodwind instruments. After a failed attempt at pop, Drake moved to more acoustic, folky music that we would likely refer to as “singer-songwriter” music today.

He suffered from depression, often severe depression, which can be heard in both the tone and lyrics of most of his songs. As he got older he became even more withdrawn, antisocial, and distant in the few interpersonal relationships he did maintain. Again, this can be sensed from his music.

Unfortunately, Nick Drake’s struggle with depression negatively affected every area of his life. Partially because of his depression he kept odd hours, often staying up all night and sleeping into the afternoon. On the morning of November 25, 1974, Nick Drake died from an overdose of his antidepressants. The coroner ruled his death a suicide, but that has been disputed basically since day one.

The Music

A friend once described Nick Drake’s music as follows: “It’s like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor had a baby who was never happy.” Pretty sad description when you think about it, but I think it’s accurate. Nick Drake had a mellow, melancholy feel to it, and he rarely projected, so it was often barely above a whisper. His guitar was often in a strange tuning, and its lo-fi melodies were often accompanied by another musician playing an equally sad-but-in-a-very-enjoyable way.

Lyrically, Nick Drake was something of a Romantic-era poet. He studied English literature at Cambridge and was influenced by the likes of William Blake, Robert Browning, and William Butler Yeats. In fact, I believe William Blake may be his biggest parallel because in addition to similar themes in writing, Blake was largely unappreciated in his time but has become a more important figure in Romantic poetry, prose, and visual art. Additionally, Blake’s works are often vivid and subdued at the same time, which is something I feel in Nick Drake’s work.

Here’s a prime example: During his lifetime, his three albums (Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, and Pink Moon) sold less than 5,000 copies total. However, when Rolling Stone released their updated list of the 500 greatest rock albums of all time in 2020, all three were on the list. In addition, artists such as Robert Smith from the Cure, Kate Bush, and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck have stated that Nick Drake influenced their work. Nick Drake songs have also appeared on a variety of movies, including High Fidelity (a must-watch for any audiophile), Garden State, and Serendipity.

The Point

The whole point of this article is to encourage folks to listen to Nick Drake. I would include more links to scenes of movies and tv shows that feature his music, but that’s no good because his catalog is not widely represented. I recommend looking him up on Spotify or saying “Alexa, play Nick Drake” to your Amazon Echo. His music is good for a variety of situations. It’s currently 8:22 a.m. here in Dallas and it’s raining, and nothing goes with Nick Drake better than rain. But his music is more than that. It’s introspective and revealing from a tortured man who was terribly shy. You can almost feel him dying young, but not in a macabre way that will keep you up at night. It reveals a certain courage to sing and play through oppressive depression. But most of all, it’s just really good music. Maybe once you’ve fallen thoroughly in the Nick Drake fan camp, you can move on to Jimmie Spheeris, but that’s a post for a different time.

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