Frail, fragile, English, delicate, bucolic, wistful, melancholic…these are all words which at some time or other have been applied to the tragically short life and legendary work of singer/songwriter Nick Drake, who died in 1972 at the age of 26, having released three albums with Island Records. The three albums – Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later, Pink Moon – sold only in small quantities at the time, but as is so often the case, the artist’s reputation soared in the decades after his death. In the years that have passed, scores of musicians have testified to the influence his work has had on their career: from Graham Coxon of Blur to Scritti Politti, from Lucinda Williams to REM, from David Sylvian to Kate Bush.
Nick Drake’s work seemed rooted in that very English tradition of pastoral lyricism, with frequent references to and metaphors about the landscape sitting alongside very internalised observations, as on the title track of this final album, Pink Moon:
Now, through the industrious endeavours of the people at Bryter Music, who manage the Nick Drake Estate, a new light has been thrown on his music, one that reveals a very poignant family thread. Available only from the Estate as a limited edition pressing at http://www.alimentation.cc/nick_drake/cds/molly-drake.html, the eponymous Molly Drake album contains 19 songs recorded by Nick’s mother, Molly.
These songs were never meant to be broadcast. They were recorded by Molly’s husband Rodney in the family home in Warwickshire during the 1950s, and the CD’s authentic crackle and hiss conjure up an English home, a piano and a frail and poignant voice – there we are, those words again. Molly Drake’s songs are about love and loss and longing. Take the opening track, Happiness:
“Happiness is like a bird with 20 wings, If you grab at him, woe betide you, I know, because I’ve tried.” This is the English lyrical tradition, it’s an inverted, upside-down Noel Coward, it’s the sad siren of fear and regret. Molly Drake was a poet who sometimes seemed to face a bleakness in her vision. Elsewhere, she sings softly of how “Love’s a germ you can’t resist”, and then later she cuts you to the quick with “Set me free, Why should I be kept in this sadness, kept in this madness, Deeper than a spell, deeper than hell.” And a final, awful domestic scene: “Here we sit in the candlelight, waiting for the thrill to start, With the red-checked table cloth between us, We’re a hundred million miles apart.”
Nick Drake is often gathered together amongst the English “folkies”: Roy Harper, John Martyn, Richard Thompson, Syd Barrett. But with the release of this extraordinary CD, we see his work stretching back deep into the heart of his own family and his family’s sense of spiritual and cultural isolation, perhaps stemming from Rodney and Molly’s early years in Burma. Nick Drake was famously adrift and out of place in the hip London of the early 1970s, and in these songs by his mother, we hear the seed of that poetic loneliness. Art has the power to redeem; it doesn’t always save.