Saturday, April 6, 2013

ALBUM REVIEW: The Minstrel Bows Out: Nick Drake's "Pink Moon"

Cover of "Pink Moon"
Cover of Pink Moon
by Garrett Sawyer

Some albums deliver their power precisely because they are minimal, streamlined and stark.

John Lennon's classic first solo album "Plastic Ono Band" comes to mind, which consisted of only Lennon playing guitar/piano, Klaus Voormann on bass and Ringo on drums.

Then there was Springsteen's raw acoustic gem "Nebraska" which consisted of even less: just the Boss on acoustic guitar.

And then there's Nick Drake's "Pink Moon".

With the exception of a single simple piano overdub the entire album consisted of Drake and his guitar. This spare album was, tragically, his last. Since most people are unfamiliar with Drake a few words are in order.

Nick Drake was the Vincent Van Gogh of British folk-rock artists. He only lived to 26, dying two years after "Pink Moon" was recorded. In his abbreviated life he suffered from severe depression and once suffered a nervous breakdown requiring prolonged hospitalization.

His albums sold sparsely, sometimes as little as 5,000 copies when they were first released. His fame was almost entirely posthumous.

"Pink Moon" was produced against the wishes of Drake's label, Island Records. They preferred he promote his previous release "Bryter Latyter".

Instead, Drake recorded his new album during two evenings with only Drake and his engineer John Wood in the studio. His label first learned of the album's existence when Drake unceremoniously handed the finished tape to Island Records' founder, Chris Blackwell.

The album is quite an experience even though it clocks in at just a little over 28 minutes total. The title itself comes from the Dictionary of Folklore, referring to the color of the moon during an eclipse.

Song after song is filled with bits and pieces that betray the depressed state Drake must have been in (sample lyrics: "And none of you stand so tall, Pink moon gonna get you all ... Now I'm darker than the deepest sea ... To win the earth just won't seem worth your night or your day ... For I am the parasite of this town ... Falling fast and falling free this could just be the end").

After it was finished Drake became convinced that he'd never be able to write anymore and decided to retire from music completely. Thus began his final descent. He became asocial, withdrawn and distant.

Copious amounts of marijuana only helped make things worse. Unable to live alone, he moved back in with his parents despite the humiliation involved. He was broke.

He would disappear without warning for days at a time, leaving no hint where he'd been. In late November, 1974 he died quietly at home from an overdose of an antidepressant (whether accidental or suicide we'll never know).

He left behind three studio albums and a reputation that would last for decades afterward. Rolling Stone would one day list "Pink Moon" among the 500 greatest albums of all time.

While it's undeniable that you don't have to be a suffering genius or mentally ill to make great music it's also disheartening how often it happens. We wish they could make great music and be happy as well.

I like to think they make their music not because of their illnesses but in spite of them. If so, Nick Drake would have had a great deal to be proud of ... if he'd only lived to see it.

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