Nick Drake remains to this day one of the most unknowable and mystifying musicians I have ever listened to. Even after twenty years or so I still can’t get over him. It’s almost as if he simply dropped down from the sky, lived on this earth for a while, made three magnificent albums, and then rose up again to return to wherever it was he originally came from. Of course such notions are romantic nonsense, and fly in the face of the reality of the real Drake, who was a sensitive young man suffering from a terrible condition, which today might well have been curable. For such is the awful shadow of mental illness which permeates throughout his every word and note that we, the listener, can never separate his muse from the extreme melancholy which I’m sure even he must have struggled to understand.
Listening to Made to Love Magic is a bit like having in one’s hand a volume of previously unpublished works by some obscure 16th century poet, left largely undiscovered over the centuries, fraught with unpolished stones and intriguing gems.
“Rider on the Wheel” was issued as part of the first posthumous collection of Drake, the now out of print “Time of No Reply”. Recorded in 1974, this is from Nick’s final studio session, for what might have been his next album. We’ll never know. What we can surmise is that at this point it seems he had no interest in recording with other musicians, preferring to keep things as intimate as possible, just like his last record, Pink Moon. And “Rider” is very much in that vein.
“Magic” originates from the sessions that would form Five Leaves Left, his 1969 debut. I can understand the decision to exclude it from that release, as the chorus is completely at odds with the rest of the material that was ultimately chosen, and to be honest, sounds a little cheesy, in that Mary Poppins kind of way. However the posthumously overdubbed string arrangement by Robert Kirby, a friend of Drake’s, is exquisite, in the best Baroque tradition of morose composition.
“River Man” dates from 1968, when Nick was still at Cambridge. What this early recording makes clear is that Drake had obviously worked out the words and arrangement long before he ever walked into a recording studio. All I can say is that the song itself is like a poem, complete, with no room for extraneous excursion outside of what it already is.
“Joey” is another outtake from the sessions for the first LP. Drake’s playing is strong and full of purpose, but there must have been some reason why it was left off the album.
“Thoughts of Mary Jane” is an alternate take which appeared originally on “Time of No Reply”, although here for the first time in stereo. Richard Thompson throws a little pixie dust over Drake’s plaintive picking, and succeeds in adding something extra.
The Cambridge demo “Mayfair”, once again from 1968, is a whimsical artefact, and nothing more. Not so “Hanging on a Star”, the second song Drake recorded during those fabled late night sessions with John Wood in 1974, and his execution is exquisite. The guitar is as warm and alluring as an open fire, while Nick’s vocals are as equally inviting.
According to the liner notes, “Three Hours” is a different take from the one that appeared on Five Leaves Left. It’s a little rawer, more in your face, and perhaps about the closest thing the 21st century listener will ever come to in terms of a live and private experience.
“Clothes of Sand” is an endearing outtake left off Five Leaves. It’s a thoughtful number, full of inner reflection and poetic expression.
“Voices” is the song of someone growing older, and an intimate glimpse into Drake’s delicate view on things.
I first heard “Time of No Reply” on the Way to Blue compilation sans orchestration, and as beautiful as the arrangement is, I think I prefer the song without it, simply because it distracts and takes away from the intimacy of the recording.
“Black Eyed Dog” was recorded in 1974, and remains one of the most deeply felt expressions of melancholia I have ever heard, where every note vibrates with the humanity of someone who has obviously stared into the eyes of depression and seen it staring back at him. A bleak and dismal portrait indeed.
“Tow the Line” has an intensity to it I cannot describe. And is purportedly the last recording he ever made, which makes it even more poignant
What Nick may have gone on to achieve had he overcome his demons is anyone’s guess. But perhaps we’re putting art before humanity. Drake was a fragile person, this is true; whose persona was not made for such a hostile world. And had he lived beyond his 26 years, for all we know he might well have given up music entirely, and become an historian, or a priest. However now in the age of you-tube, I’m sure that Nick would have flourished, and been the artist that he wanted to be, without ever having to leave his bedroom.