A new double album of Nick Drake covers finds brilliance when its artists — including John Grant, Aldous Harding and Self Esteem — lean into the striking strangeness of the original material, writes Dan Richards.
Sunset at West Kennet Long Barrow, Avebury. Solstice eve. A purple thundercloud rages massive beyond the cone of Silbury Hill. The rain passes us by. There is no sunset to be seen but I toast the dusk with tea provided by my friend, Roz. Pulp tea. ‘I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere in a field’ reads the tag — a feeling perhaps familiar to the folk who built and tended the impressive Neolithic chambered tomb beneath us. As the cumulonimbus slugs away to the north, the sky clears and stars kindle in the deep blue heavens.
Later tonight, huddled up in Avebury proper, air heady with drum & bass and the smell of fire poi paraffin, we’ll drink another cup and my Jarvis tea tarot will read ‘Two sugars would be great ‘cause I’m fading fast and it’s nearly dawn.’
The intersection of music and the mystic, weird, and eerie has been on my mind for a while. Ideas of trespass and straying into the margins, being slightly out of time, out of place — the thought that (Scar)folk horror exists in a very real way in the prosy of the everyday. A sideways glance, finding yourself the odd one out — a nocturnal ramble down the concrete sluice of the Don in case of Pulp’s song ‘Wickerman’.
Another tunnel, another set of uncanny visions:
Sailing downstairs to the northern line
Watching the shine of the shoes
And hearing the trials of the people there
Who’s to care if they lose.
‘Parasite’ by Nick Drake is full of images cut from Summerisle cloth — a mask is lifted from sad clown, people jig in a church with chimes and ‘make the moon for fun’ before somebody changes a rope for a size too small and everyone gets hung… or burnt in a woven willow giant, perhaps.
Is Drake’s psychedelia fully appreciated? I don’t think so. The quiet storm of the song ‘Pink Moon’ is may-pole memento mori. ‘River Man’ circles around memory and trance-state, Lanny-like in its intimation of bucolic fever-dream — the strings which swirl, unsettled, swarming — leading ever deeper into the woods.
For when she thought of summer rain
Calling for her mind again
She lost the pain
And stayed for more.
For me, three things combine in Nick Drake’s music to make it so unique — his voice, the melodies and phrasing of his singing, and the impetus of his guitar playing. Robert Kirby’s orchestration is astonishing but it unarguably augments the core quiddity of the songs. Listen to any of the albums with an ear to the motoric finger-song of the acoustic guitar and you’ll be mesmerised anew by the deft articulation — the heart and bell-beat of the tune… Also the way he takes us on a journey; the pulse of the city, the strobe of a train, as in ‘Three Hours’ which may or may not be about trips up to London from Marlborough College, raids on the folk cellars, returning before dawn. Gnomic portals, the songs draw you in, then you wake up having been on a journey the precise route and rules of which escape you.
I thought about all this whilst up on the long barrow — Marlborough almost within sight away to the east. The twin magnets of Avebury and London perhaps pulling the young man one way and the other, or not. Shy, strange, compelling, gone. Elemental but ineffable — three intimate albums beautifully complete but ripe for analysis and interpretation — what can he have meant?
To flip the question, what does he mean today? For an artist whose music is so full of spectral stories and apparitions it’s perhaps no surprise that the listener rarely gets a clear sight of the man himself — the cipher at the centre of the oeuvre allowing devotees to interpret and augment for almost 50 years.
Now, a new project has invited a range of contemporary musicians to dig into the catalogue and celebrate Drake afresh. A double album, The Endless Coloured Ways: The Songs Of Nick Drake is often brilliant, particularly when the interpretations lean into and expand upon the striking strangeness of the original material.
The fact that the collection begins with the echoing rave-up of Fontaines D.C.’s ‘Cello Song’ points to the spirit of adventure and reinterpretation which animates so many of the successful readings here.
Let’s Eat Grandma’s ‘From The Morning’ is a standout moment — remaking the ache of the original into a cascade of dream-pop; Feist is similarly wonderful on her woozy off-kilter reading of ‘River Man’, the brushed drums recalling something of the hypnotic string-scratch of Drake’s guitar.
Not everything works. There are a few dirges in the mix. If the best translations draw out and expand on elements within the source material, a couple seem hellbent on doing the opposite or, much worse, render exquisite songs dull.
At the other end of the spectrum, John Grant turns ‘Day is Done’ into a synth-nebula to grace Blade Runner’s end credits, John Parish & Aldous Harding bring a pulsing Krautrock edge to ‘Three Hours’, and Craig Armstrong & Self Esteem unspool an unexpectedly joyous ‘Black Eyed Dog’.
The love for Drake’s music shines through the endeavour. Nadia Reid’s ‘Poor Boy’ is soulful and fun — one of many great band performances on the collection, and one of several which sent me immediately back to the master recordings; ‘Did he have drums on the original?’ He did, a gentle jazzy arrangement. And maybe that’s the real delight in The Endless Coloured Ways — it flags known aspects in new ways and sends you back to source; the borrowed lines from Winnie the Pooh in ‘Poor Boy’ one happy example.
When the sun rose at West Kennet Long Barrow on the Solstice, Roz and I were sitting with about 20 others. The light which had been welling in the east finally broke over the hill opposite and it was a gorgeous thing. Some people were there for the mysticism, others for the novelty — they’d lived nearby but never got up to see the longest day dawn. Whatever our reasons for being there, it was beautiful to witness. I think that’s the same with music and musicians — whether you know an artist of old or discover them by way of somebody else, it’s all part of the journey. The only thing of real importance it that you arrive, that ‘now you’re here.’
The fact that The Endless Coloured Ways will turn a new set of people on to the enigmatic beauty of Nick Drake’s music is a wonderful thing. That it expands and compliments his original body of work so well is testament to the passion and sensitivity of the artists involved and team behind the project.
‘Endless Coloured Ways: The Songs Of Nick Drake’ is out today on Chrysalis Records. Available here, or via your own choice of local independent record shop.