Nick Drake, Way to Blue (Island, 1994)

For somebody who passed away in near complete obscurity over thirty-five years ago, Nick Drake has shown a remarkable ability to not go away.  His following in English folk music circles has steadily increased with each passing year, while a number of TV commercials featuring his music have introduced him to mainstream audiences.  I've had his compilation CD Way to Blue for quite some time, but the recent AT&T commercial that used his song "From the Morning" made me go back and give it a few more listens. So if you were wondering who that singer is, I'll try to make a long story short.

Pathologically shy and clinically depressed, Nick Drake didn't exactly possess star quality.  He did have a talent for the guitar, though, and the ability to express his feelings lyrically.  Joe Boyd, a pioneering figure in the English folk scene of the late sixties who had taken bands like Fairport Convention and Pentangle under his wing, recognized Drake's talent and got him signed to Island.  Working with Drake was a challenge for Boyd, however.  For Drake's 1969 debut Five Leaves Left, Boyd backed Drake's guitar and voice with some light orchestration, and also got some help from Fairport Convention's lead guitarist Richard Thompson and Pentangle's bassist Danny Thompson.  (The two Thompsons are not related, but they have since worked together on many different occasions over the years.)  The combination worked well, at least artistically.  Drake's melancholy voice suited his songs well, and the arrangements didn't detract from his singing and playing.  Highlights from this album which made the compilation include the quietly emotional "Cello Song" and the haunting "River Man."  "Way to Blue," featuring just Drake's voice over orchestration, has a dark feel very reminiscent of Billie Holliday's "Gloomy Sunday."  There is a definite jazz influence in Drake's writing, and I can really picture "Way to Blue" being covered like an old jazz standard. Danny Thompson's jazz sensibility proved to be beneficial on the songs where he plays, most noticeably the song "Time Has Told Me."  Despite a healthy number of good songs, Five Leaves Left was a very poor seller.  Island grew frustrated with Drake's inability to promote his own music.  His live shows were characterized by long gaps between songs, during which Drake would obsess over the precision of the tuning without engaging the audience in any way.  Attempts to interview him didn't fare any better, as Drake tended to put people off with his distant, indifferent attitude.

For Drake's next album Bryter Layter, Boyd opted for a fuller band sound in the hopes that a livelier record would get more attention.  Boyd's intentions were good, but the approach backfired.  While the album included a number of strong songs like "One of These Things First," touches like backing singers and horn sections took Drake completely out of his element.  Even with the nice romantic ballad "Northern Sky" serving as a viable single, Bryter Layter didn't even fare as well as its predecessor.  By this point, Island was only as willing to promote Drake as much as Drake promoted himself -- and since Drake wasn't capable of promoting himself, that meant he got no help.

Drake continued to write songs, but he was living with his parents, abusing drugs, and otherwise not functioning particularly well.  He recorded Pink Moon, on which only he performed, over a couple of days in 1972, and dropped the finished masters off at the Island office late on a Friday.  Nobody at Island even knew he was working on an album, and the tapes sat unattended until Monday morning.  Predictably, the album disappeared almost as quickly as it was released, but it was Drake's most compelling work.  The title song, "Things Behind the Sun," and "From the Morning" show Drake's songwriting at its most lyrical, and the absence of accompaniment fit Drake's style far better than any of the more elaborate arrangements on the first two records did.

Drake returned to the studio one last time in 1974 to record four new songs, of which "Black-Eyed Dog" is included on the compilation.  Bare and unnerving, "Black-Eyed Dog" comes across as the work of somebody losing his grip.  Drake succumbed to an overdose of his prescription drugs later that year.  And yet, the story didn't end there.

Way to Blue closes with a song off of Five Leaves Left called "Fruit Tree," on which Nick Drake identifies himself with the (arguably stereotypical) starving artists who have to die before their work gets appreciated. "Fruit tree, fruit tree, open your eyes to another year. They'll all know that you were here when you're gone." Drake seemed resigned to his fate from the beginning of his career, if not much earlier.  Given the universally sympathetic response that Maggie Boyle has received, it does seem that audiences are more willing today to look past a person's psychiatric issues to appreciate his or equally obvious talent. Nick Drake, unfortunately, was a product of the wrong time.

Nick Drake the person will always remain shrouded in mystery. Even those closest to him say they never really knew him. But I guess everything you really need to know about him is contained in his music. Way to Blue contains a number of beautifully written songs that deserve to be remembered.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

A very nice photo montage set to "One of These Things First"

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