Monday, November 2, 2009

November 2: Nick Drake, "Pink Moon"

Artist: Nick Drake
Album: Pink Moon
Year: 1972
Label: Island

Long before the current performers of the genre were even born, the blueprint for the style of music known as "emo" were being created by a handful of legendary musicians. Throughout the 1960's and early 1970's, the idea of just a singer and an acoustic guitar, behind heartfelt, more morose lyrics than the "folkies" was finding its way into popular music. Taking the stark, sparse musical arrangements that were being fused into rock by artists like The Velvet Underground, there was one performer in particular who perfected the sound on the opposite end of the spectrum. Standing today as one of music's most tragic characters, there are few artists from any genre or generation who so honestly and clearly convey the pain within as brilliantly and beautifully as Nick Drake. With his calm, soft voice and fantastic guitar work, at the end of the 1960's, Nick Drake was one of the few artists who were attempting to breathe new life into the fading folk genre. Similarly standing as one fo the most reclusive artists in history, much of the reason that Drake lacked commercial success is due to the fact that he almost never performed live, and gave even fewer interviews. However, the three studio records that he released before his tragic death in 1974 at only twenty-six years old remain some of the most influential and extraordinary albums ever recorded. Breaking from his own sound, as well as pretty much anything else that was being done at the time, Drake forever altered the face of acoustic music with his absolutely stunning 1972 release, the iconic classic, Pink Moon.

Truth be told, upon its release, Pink Moon was a startling release on many levels. First and foremost, the album sounded very little like Drake's previous two efforts, as those albums were far more pop based folk records and were rather traditional in sound and style. This time around, Drake took a far darker lyrical approach, as well as scaling the music back to only a single acoustic guitar (though the title track also features an over-dubbed piano from Drake). Drake's voice rarely moves far beyond his low, soft tone, and the songs never veer far from their simple musical backing. Furthermore, the production is kept extremely simple, and the songs often feel as if Drake himself is sitting in the room with the listener, creating an amazingly intimate mood throughout. These changes in mood give the eleven tracks, recorded in a pair of midnight sessions, a somber and rather bleak tone that remains largely unparalleled to this day. While Pink Moon represents the final album of Drake's work before his death, in the months following the albums' release, Drake commented that the reason the album was so short in length was due to the fact that he "...simply had no more to record." Statements like this give the record an almost mythical feel, as the lyrics are often so heartbreaking that one can make the case that Drake knew he'd soon be gone, and this was perhaps his farewell to the world.

Not enough can be said about the phenomenal mood that Drake creates throughout Pink Moon, and few records have so perfectly captured the essence of a dark, autumn night spent alone. Pink Moon conveys a very "Earthy" and honest tone, and one can similarly often almost feel the warmth of a campfire, as Drake proves to be one of the most brilliant and most emotive performers in history. Not surprisingly, upon its release, Pink Moon did not sell well at all, and the mood of the record, along with Drake's almost refusal to perform live or be interviewed certainly did nothing to help his cause. However, the record did manage to gain a rather significant cult following, and a clever clause in Drake's contract ensured that the album would never go out of print. In many ways, this somewhat forced longevity is one of the keys that helped the record reach its iconic status. When the rest of the world caught up to the brilliant, intense emotions found on Pink Moon, Drake began to be hailed as one of musics' unsung legends, and one can find his influence across the musical spectrum, in bands ranging from Joy Division to J. Mascis to Beth Orton. The fact that the album still sells to this day and the success of the "emo" genre are directly due to the absolutely stunning performance that Drake gives throughout Pink Moon, and few artists have so openly presented their emotions for the world as one finds within the album.

With a voice falling somewhere between Van Morrison and Donovan, Nick Drake's soft, deep vocals stand today as brilliant and chilling as they were nearly forty years ago. Simultaneously soothing and unsettling, Drake's voice knows little equal, and the raw, blunt honesty in his vocals are just as stunning today, as he represents the pinnacle of a fearless, soul-bearing artist. Along with his perfect voice, Nick Drake took the songs on Pink Moon to prove without a doubt that he was one of his generations most talented songwriters. Every song on Pink Moon comes with an overwhelmingly powerful set of lyrics, and Drake often turns the pen on himself, as on "Parasite" when he sings, "...and take a look you may see me on the ground, for I am the parasite of this town...and take a look you may see me in the dirt, for I am the parasite who hangs from your skirt..." These perfectly crafted, heart-wrenching lyrics perfectly paint the picture of the deep-rooted torture that Drake battled his entire life, and the truth of the matter is, much of the initial criticism of the album was most likely due to people simply not being able to deal with the pure honesty and unguarded nature of his lyrics. The combination of Drake's low, almost detached voice and his melancholy lyrics were truly groundbreaking at the time, and the songs on Pink Moon remain largely unrivaled in terms of overall impact to this day.

Throughout history, many of the most famous characters from every form of art are those who are painted as tragic heroes. Whether they be from literature, visual art forms, or music, the tragic hero often has the benefit of being the most honest and uninhibited. In the case of folk singer, Nick Drake, he brilliantly put all of his inner demons on display and let the world feel his pain on his final musical effort, Pink Moon. Though from a modern perspective, the honesty and tenor of his lyrics may not seem as shocking, the reality is, in the early 1970's, there was simply no other artist that was writing and singing such consistently blunt and grim lyrics. Stripping his pop-folk style down to just him and his guitar, Nick Drake completely re-wrote the books on what was able to be accomplished as a singer-songwriter, and there are scores of artists who have made their careers out of Drake's mold since his time. Proving beyond doubt that one need not be loud or aggressive to have devastating impact as a musician, Drake uses the combination of his deep, soft voice and fantastic, simple guitar playing to create some of the most moving and hard-hitting songs ever written. Standing in stark contrast to not only his own previous efforts, but quite literally everything else that was going on musically at the time, Nick Drake forever altered the musical landscape with his monumental final album, his truly unmatched masterpiece, 1972's Pink Moon.

Standout tracks: "Pink Moon," "Which Will," and "Things Behind The Sun."

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