How a critic misunderstands Nick Drake
In an article in Guitar World’s ACOUSTIC magazine (Summer 2000 issue) music critic J.D. Considine writes that Nick Drake’s current popularity is attributable to two things – the allure of his tragic life and his intricately-picked rhythm guitar. He dismisses Drake’s songs with comments like “insubstantial melody,” “lovesick lyrics,” and “tuneful mutterings.” He suggests they are too oblique, somehow not quite obvious enough to suit our contemporary tastes as if, in and of itself, suggestion rather than direct statement is somehow suspect.
As a professional songwriter, I feel it’s important to point out that J.D. Considine is right… and wrong. There is indeed a great deal going on in these songs that is not immediately apparent. A truly reserved Englishman, Nick Drake hid his talent discreetly behind a subtle simplicity. Only when you take the time to look beneath the surface do you discover Drake’s amazing facility with chord progressions, meter, phrasing, major/minor key changes, and diffident homages to the jazz greats of the time.
But let’s look for a moment at the notion that people are attracted to Nick Drake’s music because of his tragic life. I would say that based on his recent surge in popularity, this cannot be true. Those people who first heard his music as part of a Volkswagen Cabrio commercial surely did not know who he was or what became of him. Still, there must have been something about the voice, the melody, the chords, the lyrics… something that made them flood the VW website looking for the name of the artist.
They did not know anything about his life when they arrived at Amazon.com to buy the album, driving sales of PINK MOON into the Top 5, briefly outstripping even ‘N Sync’s sales. At this point, yes, they probably read the bio and looked at the photos. Yes, there is a tragic story there and, yes, there is a handsome young man who will never grow old or bald or paunchy. However there are, unfortunately, a lot of dead musicians who led tragic lives; generally people don’t run out and buy their albums.
As for the songs themselves, as I’ve said elsewhere, to think that what’s important about Nick Drake is his dark romanticism is like thinking what’s important about Brian Wilson is surfing. It’s missing the point.
Floating with the river man
I’d like to give an example that will demonstrate both Drake’s abilities as a songwriter and show that what Considine considers a weakness — “his recordings rely more on atmosphere and mood than on melody” — is really something quite different.
Nick Drake’s melodies are often woven in and out of his chord progressions, adding extensions (major 7ths, 9ths, and 11ths) to the chords. River Man is an excellent example. This is a four-chord song with a simple repeating melody, so why is it so haunting? Why does a highly respected music critic like Ian MacDonald call it “one of the sky-high classics of post-war English popular music”?
River Man’s verse is a series of two-bar phrases: each chord is held for two bars, each two-bar melodic phrase begins in the middle of a two-bar chord phrase (a favorite trick of Nick’s). As he changes chords, he sustains the melody line through the change, the melody line then becomes the extension of the following chord. All of this is done in 5/4 time, a meter that sounds as if it is “spilling over” into the next measure. Delivered with a steady, easy confidence, it results in a riverine sense of flowing motion, wave lapping upon wave, literally creating a river of sound, a River Man’s world.
This songwriting device (the use of music to underscore lyric content) is called “prosody” and few songwriters ever master it. Among Nick’s compositions, it appears over and over again in one form or another. Nick Drake was not using melody to create pop hooks — it isn’t easy to hum most of Nick’s songs — he was using melody to create exactly what J.D. Considine says he was: mood and atmosphere.
Considine is right, of course, about Nick’s mastery of the guitar, but his fancy fingerpicking was not “the salvation of many a tune on his albums.” The songs themselves stand as testimony to his astonishing talent. There are certainly people who may not like all his songs, or may not like any of them, but from the point of view of a working songwriter, Drake’s three albums are a master class in songwriting craft and variations.
The question remains: “Why would his music strike a chord now?” Considine asks it, as do many others who have written about Drake’s life and music. Is it simply because people are hearing it for the first time? If Volkswagen and ATT and dozens of major films had used his songs during his lifetime would people have reacted as they are reacting now?
It is true that, as Considine points out, “We pop fans do love our tragic heroes.” Nick Drake certainly evokes that image, but the tragedy and heroism are not revealed through his life, they are revealed through his songs. They are present in the ability and courage to express deep emotional truths: vulnerability, hope, yearning, and despair. We have few acceptable ways of expressing these difficult feelings and it is perhaps not coincidental that we live in a culture rife with misplaced rage and alienation. So, yes, there may be a reason why Nick Drake is coming into his own now, twenty-five years after his death. Or perhaps it’s simply because truth and beauty will always, eventually, find their way to the light.
In memory of Nick Drake…
©2000 Robin Frederick
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Robin Frederick is a professional songwriter, music producer and recording artist. Nick Drake’s recording of her song Been Smoking Too Long appears on the FAMILY TREE album. She is also a contributor to the album notes in the re-release of the FRUIT TREE box set and FAMILY TREE CD, and the book REMEMBERED FOR A WHILE.
Over her 35 years in the music industry, Robin has written more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records, Executive Producer of 60 albums, and the author of five books on songwriting, including “Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting” and “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV.”
Robin’s books are used to teach songwriting at universities and schools at all grade levels. They’re fun to read and filled with practical, real world information. For more information, visit Robin’s Author Page at Amazon.