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From my interview archive: the biographers of Nick Drake

I came to the Nick Drake party earlier than some, but later than many: much later, certainly, than Patrick Humphries, Trevor Dann, and Peter Hogan, all of whom I invited on The Marketplace of Ideas to talk about Drake and his music for the 40th anniversary of his debut album Five Leaves Left. All three interviewees had written books about Drake’s three albums, once almost forgotten but now long since rediscovered, and the short life during which he recorded them.

Five Leaves Left‘s 50th anniversary passed last July (somehow I’d previously been under the impression that the album had come out in September), and in the past ten years the body of Nick Drake-related literature — along the Byronic legend of the man himself — has expanded further still. More books have come out, of course, but so have more radio and television documentaries, as many of which as possible I rounded up for my Open Culture post on the semicentennial of Drake’s debut. Drake’s fans exhibit a stronger fascination than ever, and his music also somehow sounds less dated than ever.

The startling timelessness of Drake’s records, especially Five Leaves Left, has fomented a great deal of speculation among musicians and recording engineers alike. “I’ve never been attracted to hypersensitives or depressives,” Robert Christgau wrote recently about the lack of attention he’s paid to Drake over the past 50 years, and when I first heard Five Leaves Left back in high school — a time when nothing could have exceeded my contempt for acoustic guitar-strumming melancholy — I might have been expected to dislike it too, but the crispness of his sound, as well as the complexity of his idiosyncratic guitar tunings, appealed to the audiophile and obscurantist within me. (My favorite band, then as now: Steely Dan.)

“What ‘timeless’ means to me is that is sounds like it was made yesterday,” Dann said to me in our interview, especially when compared to other records from 1969. “You’re talking about the era of records like ‘Get Back’ by the Beatles, you’re talking about Led Zeppelin I. Those records, when you hear then now, they’re great records, great performances, but the recording of them is somehow mushy and old.” The same might even be said of a more directly comparable if slightly newer album like Colin Blunstone’s One Year, which I also keep on high rotation. But “you put Five Leaves Left on now — bang. It sounds like he’s in the room with you. I think that is one of the great attributes those records have, this sound so shiny and new and modern whilst at the same time touching some very deep and subconscious themes.”

The great thing now about Drake’s music now is, of course, that “he died all those years ago, so we’ll never know him. So (a), he never gets old — he’ll always be that beautiful man making that beautiful music — and (b), he never says the wrong thing in an interview. He is exactly who he is, and he always is able to be discovered by a new generation and owned by them.” And so the party continues.