Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Troubled Mind

Twenty years before Kurt Cobain's suicide rocked the music world, the self-inflicted demise of another musician was relatively little noticed. Nick Drake (1948-1974) was an English folk singer and guitarist who released three transcendent records to minimal or no acclaim before dying from an overdose of amitriptyline. He was a perfect Romantic artist, the tormented genius who was too ill-suited to the world to survive, the kind of person who is at once evolution's greatest product and its greatest failure.

It sounds like Drake, reserved and anxious from an early age, grew frankly socially phobic, interpersonally avoidant, and depressed as his short life wore on. Pathologically shy and distant even among family and friends, he obviously sought escape in music and marijuana. His first album Five Leaves Left, produced when he was only 20, was a staggering achievement for a novice. But one of the reasons it failed commercially was his inability or unwillingness to promote the record through touring and interviewing; he knew how good his work was and thought it should speak for itself. Big mistake, at least if one wants to be recognized. And presumably Drake did wish this; largely unable to connect in other ways, he sought to connect through music. When he found his overtures largely ignored by the public of his time, it was a devastating rejection. Ironically, of course, his albums are now commonly honored as among the best of the last century.

Drake's voice is hypnotic in its effect, both dark and delicate, both detached and intimate. His musical world is one of ethereal melancholy. As with Sylvia Plath and some others, it is tempting to experience his work through the prism of his eventual fate--how is it possible to experience such beauty and such sadness at the same time? The first song on his first record, "Time Has Told Me" (which can be heard here), is Drake at his best, a clarion call but at a frequency many cannot hear.

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