When British folkie Nick Drake died of an antidepressant overdose in 1974, he left behind one excellent album (1969’s Five Leaves Left) and two masterpieces (1970’s Bryter Layter and 1972’s Pink Moon). Even so, Drake nearly faded into obscurity, rescued only by that Volkswagen ad. Now he’s name-checked by everyone from Brad Pitt to the Japanese noise-metal group Boris. Chalk one up for commercial tie-ins.
The thing about dead musicians is that we’ll spare no expense when new material surfaces. More than two decades after Fruit Tree—a box set collecting his three records, an essential collection of rarities, and a shoddy biographical booklet (due for reissue this year, and still a bargain at $75 on Amazon for the rarities alone)—comes Family Tree, which collects previously unheard lo-fi demos and covers from Drake’s early years. Sadly, it doesn’t accomplish much. Instead, these 28 tracks help dispel myths long held about the guy: Now we see him as a human, belching halfway through a pass at Blind Boy Fuller’s “My Baby’s So Sweet.” More effectively, Drake fingerpicks a deceptively simple riff on “Sketch 1” that might have become one of the ornate instrumental pieces from Bryter Layter; he also tackles traditional blues (“Cocaine Blues”), Dylan (“Tomorrow Is a Long Time”), Mozart (“Kegelstatt Trio”), and Bert Jansch (“Strolling Down the Highway”).
It’s easy to charge Drake with being an over-the-top, full-of-it folkie. His lyrics are cloyingly mystical, full of flowers, birds, and otherworldly goddesses. But he was absolutely earnest about his poetry, and to this day, his writing skills, fingerpicking style, and sincerity remain unparalleled. Above all, he was humble. “It’s crazy,” Drake murmurs specifically about “Strange Meeting II,” while unconsciously summing up his body of work. “It’s just sort of a funny dream.”