A new 'Life during quarantine' playlist arrives while Nick Triani explains why he feels Nick Drake's music might be the most unknowingly prescient for these times.
The easing of restrictions in Finland regarding COVID-19 are on the horizon. It looks likely that children will partially return to school in mid-May. I think everyone is chomping at the bit to break this imposed isolation. Social distancing must continue as must any other preventive measure’s – let’s keep a lid on it. Last week I visited downtown Helsinki for the first time in seven weeks. It was a Wednesday evening, around 5pm. The streets were completely empty. The cinema in Kaisaniemi had all movie posters removed form the window and looked like a derelict space. A post-Apocalyptic stillness permeated downtown. Silence, no cars, barely any people. I was cycling as large flakey snowfall descended, the ash metaphor couldn’t have been more prescient. One obvious outcome of easing these restrictions is the already permanent feeling of COVID-19 paranoia. Any sniffle, headache, any presence of an innocent cough automatically raises the stress levels. Let’s now dial those paranoia levels up to 10.
This week I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Nick Drake. His music and loner persona fit perfectly with these isolating times. A constant companion to Drake’s music was mental illness – rarely talked about – even though his story has the hallmarks of a person who lived under awful circumstances. Watching the rather limited and disappointing documentary on Drake’s life A Skin Too Few – one comment by Drake’s father cut through: that although present in the room it felt like “Nick was never really there.” This stands testament to an artist who cultivated a sense of mystery through illness and disassociation. That elusiveness of Drake only adds to the cult surrounding his music – even though for the artist the pain was real, unaffected and ultimately led to his tragic death. Drake was only 26 years old when he passed.
Drake left us a faultless discography: the three albums released during his lifetime are distinctive, melodic, thematically yearning and wistful. Although pretty much ignored on their release, those records (bar the last album, the solo performed Pink Moon) have the mark of quality through association. Various Fairport Convention alumni play on those first two albums, Richard Thompson the standout. Danny Thompson, then of Pentangle plays bass. John Cale, recently of the Velvet Underground turns up on the Bryter Layter album, as does former Beach Boys drummer Mike Kowalski. Who can forget Robert Kirby‘s essential string arrangements or the technical team of Joe Boyd (producer) and John Wood (engineer) pristine contributions. Still, front and foremost is Drake’s dulcet voice and guitar, metronomic in it’s intricate exactness, despite the supporting cast, Drake brings everything into focus.
Although nature is a regular theme so is the vantage point of the outsider and an almost completely slow withdrawal from life. We hear this view repeatedly through Drake’s catalog of music and especially on ‘River Man’, ‘Time Has Told Me’, ‘Poor Boy’, ‘One of These Things First’ and in ravaged clarity on ‘Parasite’. The posthumously released tracks ‘Hanging On A Star’ and ‘Black Eyed Dog’ offer more insight into Drake’s fragile state of mind, though more through a feeling of performance rather than the minimal lyrical intent displayed on those recordings.
Having lived with these albums for the best part of 35 years, the overused term timeless doesn’t really do this music justice. I never tire of hearing them, but I’m also struck by a real sense of sadness, not just evoked by the quality of the music but of the sense of self-isolation Drake repeatedly imparts in his songs. In 2020, this really feels like the most essential music of these strange times.
Nick Triani is an editor and contributor to One Quart Magazine.