Nick Drake exuded an otherworldly charm through his music; his lyrics – delivered in a voice simultaneously haunting and mesmerizing – invite you to join his desperate search for satisfaction, often leading you into the recesses of your own mind until you are brought back with a sudden jolt by the intensity of his acoustic guitar– his strumming often feels pained and raw and it’s hard to listen to some of his bleaker music without feeling the weight of his sadness. Drake’s life was plagued with self-doubt; he released his debut album Five Leaves Left, in 1969, and coincidentally, he committed suicide five years later, aged just 26.
During his lifetime, the three albums that Drake released didn’t garner much attention, but posthumously, the British musician is hugely acclaimed, particularly for his final album, the stripped back ‘Pink Moon,’ which grew in popularity when the title track was used in an advertisement in the late ’90s. Over four decades on from his untimely death, his music is perhaps more popular than ever; here are 10 essential Nick Drake songs.
#10 – Time Has Told Me
Drake’s music has drawn many musicians in over the decades, R.E.M have cited him as an influence and the band The Cure took their name from the lyrics in this song – ‘A troubled cure for a troubled mind.’ This classic folk offering from ‘Five Leaves Left’ sets the tone for an understated, yet enrapturing album that interweaves mournful vocals with ethereal melodies.
#9 – River Man
Another track from Drake’s debut album, ‘River Man’ is a folk-jazz fusion of string instruments and musically one of his best pieces of work. ‘Five Leaves Left’ was an album featuring a lot of accompanying musicians – Danny Thompson of folk group Pentangle played double bass on this particular song, with the string arrangement being provided by Harry Robinson.
#8 – Black Eyed Dog
This is the darkest of Drake’s work; recorded just four months before his death and released posthumously, his guitar rings out with typical clarity, but extra ferocity is added to his strumming that hints at his pain. Accompanied by melancholic vocals, the line ‘I’m growing old and I want to go home’ can only hint at the darkness in his mood. It’s not a particularly easy listen, but it’s a fine example of an artist exorcising their inner turmoil in the only way they know how.
#7 – Fruit Tree
Nick Drake’s impeccable guitar skills are showcased in this track from his debut album, every note rings out with the cleanest purity as he forebodingly sings ‘safe in your place deep in the earth, that’s when they’ll know what you were truly worth.’ Close companion of Drake, Robert Kirby, provided the string arrangement for this understated yet powerful track.
#6 – Place To Be
This song from his 1972 album ‘Pink Moon’ highlights the influence of Romantic poetry on Nick Drake during his time at Cambridge University. ‘I was green, greener than the hill where the flowers grew and the sun shone still, now I’m darker than the deepest sea’ is a line exemplifying Drake’s ability to reduce his crushing troubles down to pastoral, pretty rhymes.
#5 – Hazey Jane I
‘Do you feel like a remnant of something that’s past?’ muses Drake in this characteristically introspective track from his ‘Bryter Later’ album. String arranger Robert Kirby, described him as the ‘perfect Elizabethan’ and this song encapsulates Drake’s disjointed position in the world he lived in.
#4 – Cello Song
Another track from his debut album that featured musical guests, ‘‘Cello Song’ features Claire Lowther on the titular instrument. Bongo drums accompany the strings, and although lullaby-like in sound, this track is another lyrically evocative one, with the heart-rending line ‘If one day you should see me in the crowd, lend a hand and lift me to your place in the cloud’.
#3 – Things Behind The Sun
There is a subtle choice that can be made when listening to Nick Drake’s music; you can either allow yourself to drift away with the mystical essence of his tunes, or you can become steeply aware of the depth of his lyrics. “Things Behind The Sun,” from his final album Pink Moon perfectly showcases Drake’s ironically beautiful take on depression – foreboding lyrics imbued with the light of charming melodies.
#2 – From The Morning
The final track on Drake’s Pink Moon is an antidote to the desperate starkness of the rest of the album; hope emanates in this track as he sings ‘A day dawned, and it was beautiful.’ This happy sounding song is such a pleasing end to an album so short (it is 28 minutes long in total) that you may feel impelled to listen to the whole thing once more.
#1 – Hazey Jane II
The no.1 spot on the top 10 Nick Drake songs list has to go to this track which so perfectly combines Drake’s simple poetry with his lilting, soothing melodies. Richard Thompson takes the lead on guitar for this track released on the Bryter Later album, creating a more upbeat sound than that on “Hazey Jane I”, but once again Drake’s lyrics do not fail to capture the musician’s increasing detachment from the rest of society. Drake sings of how ‘all the friends that you once knew are left behind, they kept you safe and so secure amongst the books and all the records of your lifetime’ showcasing his ultimate talent of turning the darkest moments of his life into some remarkably light and easy to listen to tracks.
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