Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March 1: Nick Drake, "Which Will"

Artist: Nick Drake
Song: "Which Will"
Album: Pink Moon
Year: 1972

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While it can be argued that it an essential part of any great performer, the idea of the "tortured artist" is found in its most pure and true form in very few artists.  These rare musicians seem to have no other choice than to exorcise the demons within through their music, and in nearly every case, the results are both haunting as well as completely captivating.  Though many can make the case, there is perhaps no better example of the overlooked, tortured artist than one finds in the stunning music of Nick Drake.  In modern times, he has certainly been given the credit he so clearly deserves, yet one can easily argue that it was, among other things, his lack of recognition in his own time that led to the darker nature of his music, as well as his untimely passing.  Thankfully for all lovers of music, his songs were left behind, and though the number of these songs is somewhat small, the power which they carry is far beyond that of most other artists.  With three official releases to his name, one can easily argue that there is not a single sub-par song anywhere in the Nick Drake catalog, though one can further argue that it was his final release, 1972's Pink Moon, that defined him best.  Each song on the album has the same feel of tragic beauty, and the overall work stands as one of the most breathtaking moments in music history.  Though every person will have a favorite moment from Pink Moon, it is difficult to argue that Nick Drake's 1972 song, "Which Will," is anything less than the perfect representation of his unique blend of musical genius.

Though the musical arrangement on "Which Will" is as simple as it gets, the true charm of Nick Drake's music becomes quickly obvious in the fact that it is almost impossible to define the style being played.  While in reality, there is nothing more than Drake's acoustic guitar on the song, there are a number of elements at play, and the overall mood conveyed through the music seems to float in a space all its own.  Among others, the genre of folk would be the easiest to title "Which Will" with, and yet there is a free, almost psychedelic energy churning underneath the song that seems to keep it out of that category.  It is due to this mixture of sounds, along with the stark, almost haunting ring of the guitar that makes "Which Will" fall more into a progressive folk, if not baroque style as a more accurate representation of the sound.  Yet regardless of the name one chooses to place on the song, it is impossible to get around just how intense a mood Nick Drake was able to convey with nothing more than his acoustic guitar.  The emotion and sadness that comes across via the musical arrangement remains unrivaled, and one cannot help but be completely captivated by the simple, unforgettable beauty within his playing.  Perhaps moreso than any other song, "Which Will" cements the idea that volume does not equal intensity, as there are few songs from anywhere else in music history that can boast as much potency as one finds here.

The only other element at play during "Which Will" is the sound of Nick Drake's voice, and it remains one of the few voices that after you hear it for even a moment, it is impossible to forget.  There is a unique softness to his sound, and yet one cannot get past the almost overwhelmingly melancholy tone that pervades every one of his songs.  The vocal range in which Drake works lends a gentle touch to each turn which the song takes, and there is an organic feel on "Which Will," making the song almost feel as if he is sitting with the listener, just playing whatever comes to mind.  It is this feeling of closeness to the song, as well as the authentic, almost unrefined tone that creates the warm, welcoming feel of the song, and much the reason the entire album remains such a treasured piece of music history.  Furthermore, "Which Will" boasts what may very well be Drake's deepest and most brilliant lyric, as he shifts from his normal work in his aspect, being far more direct and literal with his words.  Beyond beautiful in his own way, it is phrases like the opening of, "Which will you go for, which will you love, which will you choose from, from the stars above..." that make the music of Nick Drake transcend words, and each line leaves the listener in awe.  It is the way in which Drake delivers each word with such purpose and simple splendor that pushes "Which Will" far beyond the rest of his catalog, and one can argue that the song represents one of the most graceful, yet somehow mournful moments in music history.

Though terms like "somber," "tragic," and "beautiful" are used quite often when describing music, one can easily argue that no artist in history represents the combination of the words better than Nick Drake.  Across his entire brief catalog, the moods he conveys are far more powerful and consistent than nearly anything else ever recorded, and it is the raw, honest sound of his music that have turned him into such a treasured part of the long lineage of recorded music.  Whether one chooses to label him as folk, folk-pop, progressive folk, or any other term, one can make the case that whatever category he is placed into, no other artist is worthy to be in at the same time.  Using nothing more than his voice and an acoustic guitar, Drake managed to redefine himself with his final record, as Pink Moon is far shorter and more stripped down than his previous two released.  Once claiming that he "had no more to record," one can easily feel the sense of finality within the songs on the album, and it is this overall mood that has vaulted the album to an almost cult-like appreciation.  The bleak, yet direct nature of the album remains just as fresh and powerful today as it did nearly forty years ago, and one can point to a long line or later artists that clearly took the album and made it their own.  Yet even with all of these facts in place, the truth is that no other musician in history has ever been able to come even remotely close to the sense of sorrow and solitude that one finds within the music of Nick Drake, and everything that makes him such a remarkable, yet almost lonely icon can be heard and felt within his magnificent 1972 song, "Which Will."

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