Treble 100: No. 16, Nick Drake – Pink Moon

Nick Drake Pink Moon

“Visceral” is a word commonly used by music critics. It is usually reserved for the loud, the scathing, the intense, music that reaches deep into our guts and slashes us to threads, bands for whom intensity is the coin of the realm. Nick Drake’s music has nothing in common with the music we usually describe as visceral and yet, there is no other way I can accurately describe the reaction I have when listening to Pink Moon. Sure, I can do my best to intellectualize my response to Drake’s greatest and final album. I can attempt to place him within the lineage of songwriters that would come before and after this tall, sullen, mysterious figure of British folk music. I can try to examine Pink Moon within the context of his all-too-brief discography. But all that pales in comparison to the feeling I have listening to this record, the one that, from the opening strums of its title tracks, rushes in like warm water into a bath. 

For whatever reason, these sorts of feelings would have been an outlier at the time these songs were first released. Pink Moon marks Drake’s third and final record, but rather than a triumph, it largely comprises the final whimpers of a musician struggling to make the impact he might have hoped. It wasn’t always so bleak. Early on, there was hope Drake could follow in the footsteps of other English singer-songwriters making a significant impact at home and abroad. It was 1969 when Drake first met producer Joe Boyd, who would go on to be an essential figure in his creative life. Boyd, a 25 year-old producer and owner of Witchseason Productions, was closely associated with Island Records, a label that began in Jamaica but had since moved to England in pursuit of just the kind of British songwriting talent from artists that would become Drake’s contemporaries. Island Records would go on to release Drake’s debut record Five Leaves Left in 1969, the same year they released albums by the likes of Fairport Convention, John Martyn, and Jethro Tull (Fairport’s Richard Thompson would even play guitar on opener “Time Has Told Me”). 

Both Five Leaves Left and his follow-up Bryter Layter, released in 1971 with much of the same personnel, fell flatter than he or the label hoped, not helped by Drake’s unwillingness to either promote the albums or play the songs live save a few one-off concerts. To many in his life, including the label, it was unclear whether there would even be a third record. Joe Boyd, to that point his primary mentor, had sold Witchseason and was headed to Los Angeles, further isolating the already mercurial songwriter and distancing himself from the music business he seemed to largely loath. When Drake approached John Wood, himself an influential engineer in the British folk scene, about making Pink Moon, no one knew quite what to expect. 

The result was something very different, sonically, from anything on his first two records. Over the course of only two nights in the studio, Drake and Wood would strip away all of the ornate orchestration of Fives Leaves Left and Bryter Layter in favor of a devastating severity. Across the album’s brief 11-song, 28-minute runtime Drake is stripped to the bone, each song, save for the title track, featuring only him and his acoustic guitar. In hindsight, it’s a shame it took this long for Drake and his collaborators to arrive at this point. The woodwind and string sections of his first two records may have seemed a wise way to dress up Drake’s songwriting but when all else falls aways, his baritone and unconventional guitar style come across much better in total isolation. In fact, so much of what makes Pink Moon great is the silence between the notes. In songs like “Road,” “Horn” and “Know,” the emptiness is very much the point, the gut-wrench absence as essential to the arrangement as the notes that make it into the light. 

Similarly, so much of Pink Moon seems to be Drake working through the wayward, and often gravely uneven, balance of light and dark, presence and emptiness, within his own outlook. Depression clearly played a central role in Drake’s short life and, at times, the desolation present with Pink Moon can become almost overwhelming. “And I was green, greener than the hill, where flowers grew and the sun shone still. Now I’m darker than the deepest sea,” he sings on “Place To Be.” Drake is consistently working from a place of comparison on Pink Moon, his own darkness made all the more hopeless when compared to the lightness in which he sees others basking. “You can say the sun is shining if you really want to, I can see the moon and it seems so clear,” goes the opening line of “Road.” No matter how hard he tries, Drake is the thing behind the sun, never in front, and as Pink Moon progresses, you start to realize how untenable this has become for the young songwriter. 

Unfortunately, if you know one thing about Nick Drake, you know that, in the end, darkness won out and at just 26 years old, Drake seemingly succumbed to his lifelong battle with depression. As is the case with any unexpected final album, it is difficult, maybe impossible, to separate Drake’s untimely death from the legacy of Pink Moon. He will, in many ways, always be the Vincent Van Gogh of folk music, the under-appreciated genius for whom fame would come decades after his death. But, to be honest, this isn’t my connection to Pink Moon at all.

To me, Pink Moon is a Sunday morning, sometime in early fall. Bleary-eyed, I make my way into the kitchen where just the smell of the coffee I am too young to drink has a way of shaking off the last remnants of sleep. My dad is at the kitchen table, steam rising from his cup, what seems like two or three full newspapers strewn about in organized chaos. Low rays of sunlight make their way through browning trees, catching dust particles framed against warming window panes. This is a scene I can see clearly, as vividly as two Sundays ago or a hundred. It might well be an amalgamation of a dozen such days, a collage more than a photograph, but there’s always one voice rising from the small, compact CD player in the corner. Like a touch of cream in black coffee or the syrup dribbling down the sides of hot french toast, Nick Drake’s voice, even at its bleakest, even as it recalls a sadness mumbled and withdrawn and ultimately all-encompassing, is a sense memory I hold dear. That’s the Pink Moon I remember.

best winter albums Pink Moon

Nick Drake : Pink Moon

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