Pop sainthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When you die young, in the full flush of your talent, you may claim a spot in the mythology of interrupted genius. You may draw more attention to your work, and, yes, fare better commercially, than had you remained alive. But shadowed by your premature passing, your work may struggle to be taken on its own terms.
No mere accident victims (like James Dean and Buddy Holly were), ’70s legend Nick Drake and ’90s cult hero Elliott Smith have drawn heightened interest because unsolved mysteries still surround their deaths. Crippled by depression, Drake overdosed on anti-depressant pills, possibly by intention. Smith, who also suffered from depression, and, at various points, drug addiction, died of stab wounds that may have been self-inflicted.
Drake died in relative obscurity in 1974 at age 26, having recorded but three albums, and didn’t get his due until his music was revived, rather remarkably, more than 20 years later. Smith hung around longer, dying in 2003 at age 34, having attained a measure of fame during his lifetime when his songs were featured in Good Will Hunting (one of them, “Miss Misery”, got an Oscar nomination). His handful of albums included two high-profile efforts for Dreamworks.
It’s difficult not to hear these hushed confessional artists in the context of their sad demises, especially since they seemed to foreshadow that end in their work. But their voices are so alive and immediate and fiercely original, they demand to be heard in the moment.
As Drake’s reputation has spread — “River Man” has been covered by everyone from popster Duncan Sheik to jazz pianist Brad Mehldau; “Pink Moon” was the unlikely theme for a VW commercial — his meager output has frustrated the new wave of followers. Aside from a disc of previously unreleased material included in a box set of his albums, there have been none of the archival diggings that have kept contemporaries such as Tim Buckley afloat. Stepping into that void, Nick’s sister, Gabrielle Drake, has curated an assortment of early reel-to-reel home recordings and cassette tapes leading up to his 1969 debut, Five Leaves Left.
A kind of aural home movie, Family Tree not only features Drake accompanying himself on guitar on folk and blues tunes, but also harmonizing with Gabrielle on a Peter, Paul & Mary-like version of “All My Trials” and playing clarinet with his aunt and uncle on a Mozart trio. His mother Molly gets in on the act, too, singing and playing piano on a pair of tradition-minded originals. Royally entertained, Nick offers some off the cuff comments between tracks.
In extensive notes, written in the form of a letter to her brother, Gabrielle wonders whether he would have wanted this stuff to be released. So may you, particularly considering the iffy doctored quality of the recordings. But even if its curiosity value surpasses its musical rewards, the album is worth hearing for the window it opens on Drake’s formative period.
So strongly has he been embraced in recent times, it’s easy to forget he emerged from the same British folk scene that produced Ralph McTell, John Martyn, and Richard Thompson (who appears on his first two albums). That same scene also adored Bob Dylan, whose “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” is treated here to Drake’s sleek, scampering chords and odd little blues coda. Even before he came into his own as a songwriter — the originals on Family Tree sound like demos, and, in fact, two of the songs were fleshed out for Five Leaves Left — Drake stood apart with his quiet intensity, unusual guitar tunings, and subtle, jazz-influenced phrasing and timing.
Drake idolized Robert Johnson, which may seem an unlikely attraction for a frail, Cambridge-educated lad. But though there’s nothing outwardly impressive about his blues material — except for his exuberant take on Blind Boy Fuller’s “My Baby’s So Sweet”, which has a lot more going for it than his renditions of “Cocaine Blues” and “Black Mountain Blues” — the compressed power and honesty of the form meant a lot to him. The more he absorbed it into his own rueful poetic style, the greater dividends it paid.
New Moon (a title that, considering Smith’s debt to Drake, may well refer back to Pink Moon) also consists largely of previously unreleased songs, most of them recorded at home and alone as well. But they date from a prime period, 1994-97, when the Portlander was stockpiling material for his finest albums, Elliott Smith and Either/Or. Though these songs failed to make either final cut, they’re not mere leftovers. Whether brilliantly overdubbing himself on vocals and strummed guitar or singing with a band, Smith adds chapters and verses to his hearthbreaking self-portrait of a young man struggling to avoid coming apart at the seams even as he came together with great distinction as a pop craftsman.
“You live up in your head/Scared of every little noise/Someone’s always breaking in accidentally/Using nothing but their voice,” he sings, summing up his state of isolation and fear and self-doubt. Smith may have been a sensitive soul, but his rejection of sentimentality or self-pity planted him firmly in the age of Nirvana. As wishful or accusatory as he can be in documenting his hardscrabble existence on and off the street, in or mostly out of relationships, there is an addictive quality to his sweet-toned vocals and melodious one-man arrangements. This is an artist who may bog down in pain, but can’t seem to lose sight of beauty.
If Drake attained his greatest moment stripping down from the string and horn arrangements of Bryter Layter to the stark performances of Pink Moon, Smith’s most fully realized moments came in building up to a band. As sequenced on New Moon, tunes with organ and drums such as “Fear City” and “New Monkey” boast added warmth and body emerging from the solo acoustic songs.
In the end, listening to Smith and Drake, you get the sense their songs, beholden to neither stylistic trends nor specific schools of rock, won’t wear out their welcome. Where would they have gone had they survived? To seek the answer to that is to deny what they went through and how they came through it.