The Over/Under: Nick Drake

British singer/songwriter Nick Drake released only three short albums during his lifetime, an output totaling less than two hours when spun back-to-back. But even more than most artists whose influence far outweighs the cumulative playlist, Drake laid the groundwork for every similarly inclined artist who followed him. Every playfully literate songwriter who sits in front of a four-track machine, every high-verbal, hopelessly romantic guitar player who tries to turn spooky poetry into tense, delicate confessional music owes Drake an artistic and conceptual debt. And since we’re in the midst of another of pop culture’s intermittent Nick Drake revivals, what with AT&T copping “From The Morning” for its current television campaign (as well as referencing the conceptual art of Jeanne-Claude and Christo, making for one of the oddest corporate ad mash-ups in recent memory), let’s dig a little deeper in the crates. Excellent though they are, “Pink Moon” and “From The Morning” aren’t the beginning and end of Drake’s formidable gifts.

:: The Five Most Overrated Nick Drake Songs
1. “Time Of No Reply” (1968)
This outtake from Drake’s earliest official sessions, which yielded his Five Leaves Left debut, has become somewhat emblematic of his ghostly folk muse. It provided the title of Hannibal Records’ posthumous odds-and-sods collection of unreleased tracks, an anthology that’s since come to bear as much weight as any of Drake’s three canonical albums due to the scarcity of unreleased material of any sonic quality. Since that release, “Time Of No Reply” has appeared on virtually every subsequent repackaging of Drake’s music. But “Time Of No Reply” is less interesting than anything on Drake’s three official records (likely the reason it wasn’t selected for inclusion in the first place), and when you survey the lyrics, you find a set of semi-rote images and easy rhymes that, one suspects, Drake would have revised further if the song were ever to have seen official release. It’s not that the lyrics are bad—Drake was seemingly incapable of writing a clumsy or amateurish lyric—but they’re significantly less arresting or compelling than those in his best work. Or even in his very good work, for that matter.

2. “Hazey Jane II” (1970)
Bleak as his music could sometimes be, Nick Drake clearly loved bouncy pop as well as haunted folk; his recordings with members of Fairport Convention constitute some of the gladdest moments in his catalog. But the horns and choo-choo percussion of “Hazey Jane II” always seemed a bit of a reach to me, a half-finished attempt to dress up the song’s nervous optimism in a radio-friendly arrangement. The commercial failure of Drake’s music in his lifetime was a source of constant frustration for him, and “Hazey Jane II,” from sophomore release Bryter Layter, sounds like an attempt to crack a wider audience after the disappointing performance of Five Leaves Left. Instead it sounds oddly produced and strangely unfinished, even in the context of other material on the record.

3. “Fruit Tree” (1969)
At the risk of inviting insult, I’ll suggest that Drake’s estimable lyrical talent occasionally led him into sentimental or, in this case, verbose overindulgence. “Fruit Tree,” like “Time Of No Reply,” has become shorthand for one aspect of the Drake mythos, in this case the neglect his music suffered on its initial release. Here’s a young man virtually no one was listening to at the time, warning against the false, shaky support upon which public adulation is propped. The comprehensive boxed set of Drake’s music, packaged and repackaged several times now, took “Fruit Tree” for its title, making the song stand as an ironic comment on the collection and Drake’s life work generally. But again, considered on its own merits the song dips into easy metaphors and poetic phrasings wider than they are deep. Square business, now: If anyone told you Drake had written the line “Life is but a memory” without providing the source, would you believe it?

4. “Poor Boy” (1970)
Alone in Drake’s songbook, “Poor Boy” has always sounded to me like a complete misfire, indulging as it does in the somewhat corny costumery of an impoverished wandering songwriter, no-money-in-his-pockets-but-a-song-and-a-dream-in-his-heart, he-may-be-penniless-but-he-has-his-pride, etc., etc. Even as I write that, I know it’s exceedingly ungenerous, and I’m making Drake pay for the offenses of dozens of lesser singer/songwriters. But really, what sort of storyline is more attractive to the serious young songwriter than this tired by-the-numbers lament? And the tortured-artiste pose was around long before Drake wrote “Poor Boy,” so I don’t think I’m being entirely unfair in suggesting that Drake is not quite working at the top of his form here.

5. “Way To Blue” (1969)
Its lush string setting separates “Way To Blue” from most of Drake’s spare arrangements, but the lyrics and breathy vocals place it firmly in the company of his most mawkish performances. And here again, the song lent its name to another anthology release, Rykodisc’s somewhat self-importantly titled Way To Blue: An Introduction To Nick Drake. Now that I survey this list, in fact, Drake has been done a significant artistic disservice by compilers of his posthumous output, each of whom has selected one of his schmalziest, dourest songs in titling a complete or partial representation of his life’s work. “Black Eyed Dog” is the only song that’s been spared this treatment, and I hesitate even to mention it lest some enterprising curator should be moved to slap that title on a future release. That’s simply misrepresentative of Drake’s estimable talent.

:: The Five Most Underrated Nick Drake Songs
1. “Which Will” (1972)
To speak of “underrated” Nick Drake songs is to split hairs with a micro-laser, since virtually all who take the initiative to explore Drake’s music eventually immerse themselves in the entire catalog. But two songs in particular—“Which Will” and “Northern Sky” below—have yet to enter the mass mind, despite the fact that they’ve become beloved by Drake aficionados and music freaks in general. Still, it’s only a matter of time before “Which Will” gets picked up by some company or another to hawk its wares. In many ways “Which Will” is the quintessential Drake tune: simply arranged but beautifully performed, maddeningly catchy despite its low-key delivery and sounding somehow fragile and muscular at once. At his best, Drake could write a song that balanced tenderness and toughness, and the endless flood questions in “Which Will” (none of which is ever resolved) sum up the relentless insecurity at the heart of every song about love ever written.

2. “Hazey Jane I” (1970)
“Hazey Jane II” receives prominent placement on every major anthology of Drake’s music. Why then does its companion piece, also from Bryter Layter, get such short shrift? Like “Which Will,” “Hazey Jane I” is built around a series of questions, this time dealing with the sources of happiness and personal contentment. Unlike “Way To Blue,” though, the strings don’t come off maudlin or overbearing. And like the best of Drake’s music, “Hazey Jane I” is musically understated but utterly confident, with the major-chord resolution at 3:02 providing the perfect payoff for the bridge, one of the most genuinely earned musical moments on any of Drake’s albums.

3. “Mayfair” (1968)
I confess to a soft spot for “Mayfair,” a simple, almost sing-songish tune from Drake’s early studio work that didn’t see release until the aforementioned Time Of No Reply anthology. Even that performance was an unfinished one, with Drake flubbing the lyrics at the end of the third verse. (An alternate version appears on the Made To Love Magic collection.) But I love “Mayfair” primarily because in it we hear Drake at his easiest and most charming; check the embarrassed chuckle that follows the botched line at 1:36. The image of tortured genius that’s dogged Drake’s legacy is, as I’ve noted above, unfair to the breadth of his talent, and we shouldn’t forget that here was a man who took deep pleasure in the sheer act of making music. Simple as it is, “Mayfair” displays that aspect of Drake’s personality in clear, bright colors.

4. “Been Smoking Too Long” (circa 1967)
Though not written by Drake—he learned the song directly from writer Robin Frederick, a young American girl living in Aix-en-Provence, while he traveled in France prior to his first official recording sessions—the quiet, bluesy rumble of “Been Smoking Too Long” fits perfectly in his aesthetic. Self-taped by Drake, a committed if not exceedingly prolific home recorder, “Been Smoking Too Long” reveals him to be an adept mimic of blues guitar stylings, an aspect of his playing that’s detectable on his studio albums only in passing moments. And the occasional grim line about “hash dreams” or “the devil in my shoes” marries the sorrow of traditional blues to the druggy, draggy dreams of the English counterculture. Few young songwriters of the late ’60s understood that blend as intuitively as Drake.

5. “Northern Sky” (1970)
Of the “underrated” songs on this list, “Northern Sky” is the best known, and arguably the best loved. And with good reason: It’s a perfect storm of stately but unfussy English pop, with instrumental accompaniment and arrangements by John Cale, late of the Velvet Underground but not yet the revered producer of such classic albums as Patti Smith’s Horses. My Morning Jacket recently covered it live, cementing its status as a swoon-pop classic for the next generation, and it’s easily the best thing on Bryter Layter. Even among Drake fans, though, “Northern Sky” takes a back seat to virtually everything on Pink Moon, which with its moody, stripped-down austerity is held up as Drake’s definitive statement. As a final offering and a career capper, it’s impossible to top Pink Moon. But “Northern Sky” represents the Drake I like best, the one whose brightness doesn’t ignore or succumb to the sadness of everyday life, but accepts it and transmutes it into complicated beauty. More than any other song I can think of, “Northern Sky” sounds like the earliest moments of a great love affair. Now, I understand with total clarity that this is fully as sentimental a statement as anything I’ve busted Drake for in the “overrated” part of this list. But of course “Northern Sky” is much more articulate and elegant than my fumbling attempt to describe it, and that’s what we look for in the best pop music, right? The genuine and unfiltered sound of love, heartbreak, folly and second chances—all the deep experiences that descriptive language alone can’t approximate, and that make music essential in the first place. Drake’s albums still move us 40 years after their release because they sound precisely like the deeply personal, yet universal experiences they describe. Nothing else in the modern singer/songwriter pantheon even approaches their collective achievement.

—Eric Waggoner

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