Nick Drake – 1972

I’d be remiss to go through 1972 without covering Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. In the grand scheme of neo-folk music, it won’t be as important as a Liege and Lief, or as sparsely folk pastoral as Bert Jansch’s, in my opinion, much more powerful Birthday Blues which traversed on similar feelings and sounds. It won’t have the same palatable otherworldly lyricism of Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate. It won’t be as jaw-droppingly brilliant on a sonic, or technical level as John Martyn’s similar, and in many ways more forward thinking, Bless the Weather, or his idol Tim Buckley’s still beyond out there Starsailor…but judging it on its own goal, to distill his sound to its barest essentials, it succeeds in doing something the others couldn’t: make a feeling, laid bare, so easily palpable.

Such is the way of history that by far his least folk-oriented album of the lot became his calling card. When I hear the album, I hear the influences of the blues, old Spanish classical music, and the vocal delivery of his bossanova idols. When all sorts of other instrumentation present in Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter was removed, I can sense the reasoning behind Nick’s choice to record this album with as little accompaniment as possible. In the end, he was trying to go back to his roots and lead you back to them as well. When his mother would play all those jazz chords, and he would try to make his guitar suss them out…you can imagine this much older boy child wishing to capture through his own new recordings the same feeling he felt when he was in a younger place.

In a younger place, he wouldn’t need to explain himself to others, he wouldn’t have to worry about performing live to audiences who were already moving beyond his naturally soft sound, he wouldn’t have to worry about experiment with ideas he wasn’t quite ready to confront, and in the end he wouldn’t have to worry that the genre they slot him underneath, now singer-songwriter, was province of true giants of it such as Cat Stevens and Al Stewart. All he’d have to worry about was getting on with his ideas and finding solace in something. By the time of Pink Moon, he had little solace in something. The sound of Pink Moon wasn’t residing in the sophistication heard in previous releases but in a studied simplification of it to portray some unwittingly purposeful change.

After the release of Bryter Layter, Nick had become less talkative and more insular. Even Nick’s closest friends like John and Beverley Martyn were having trouble understanding his increasing seclusion. Although he came from money, he would refuse to ask for any help. He’d live a paupers existence, barely eating on the pittance he had earned from his record sales and wearing tattered clothes, all masking a lack of acceptance that he needed help. When he spoke with anyone, if at all, quickly conversations devolved into downer topics of suicide, madness, schizophrenia, and a favorite of his how the record company failed at making him a well known artist. He’d disappear weeks on end without telling a soul, only to be found back in his flat staring off into space.

By 1972, for once, a record label can be applauded for giving Nick ample space and finances, and to not completely write off his career. After trying his luck, unsuccessfully at recording with Francoise Hardy, and at getting others to record his tracks at Joe Boyd’s Witchseason insistence, Nick took a brief paid trip to Spain and spent some time in the villa of Island Records label chief Chris Blackwell. After this brief trip he came back to England, specifically Joe Boyd’s Sound Technique Studios and rounded up his engineer John Wood (fresh off recording Fairport’s Babbacombe Lee and John Martyn’s Bless the Weather) to record Pink Moon.

Now a spectre of the shy charming man he used to be, his playing and lyricism verged on deeply abstract dark personal topics and styles. It seemed like he was playing the role most people, who have some surface level knowledge of him, know him as, the sad sack, depressing loner. This is the disappointment, that more knowledgeable fans feel for seeing such an album be as influential as it is. Rather than get out of the terrible milieu of this kind of acceptance, he seemed to be absorbing and promoting it. Rather than seek professional help to get him out of his deep uncontrollable funk, he grinned and bared it. Rather than see the more brilliant bittersweet sound of his earlier albums that tipped on the brighter side of the scale, he gravitated towards this darker one that truncated his true power.

Pink Moon album cover.

That’s exactly what you hear in this album, the strains of someone trying to reject a positive disposition for the now parasitic blues. Recorded in two nights and then delivered personally by Nick to Island Records, one doubts he had any illusions of stardom any more. An unreleased song recorded a year later, “Hanging on a Star”, in hindsight, encapsulates the feeling of confused despair better than any of the songs on this album. For me though, and I imagine many others, there’s a reason the first two songs “Pink Moon” and “Place to Be” could be their favorite from this album. They presented a promise.

In the land of Grey and Pink, these beautiful beacons of pink spectra just sound so inviting, and harken to a man, that as you traverse further down into the remaining muted gray of the album, you hear progressively faint glimmers of in that same light. It seems, at this moment, even the pressure of solid air was too much for him to bear and his music reflected an attempt to shed some or all of that weight. Time will tell that whether what he needed wasn’t a sense of doubt but a sense of peace. However, that’s a story for the future, for now, people then were left wondering what was yet to be. We’ll pick up more of that tomorrow, though…

Listen to Pink Moon at Grooveshark.