British singer-songwriter Nick Drake's American debut album is a beautiful and decadent record. A triumph of eclecticism, it successfully brings together varied elements characteristic of the evolution of urban folk rock music during the past five years. An incredibly slick sound that is highly dependent on production values (credit Joe Boyd) to achieve its effects, its dreamlike quality calls up the very best of the spirit of early Sixties' jazz-pop ballad. It combines this with the contemporary introspection of British folk rock to evoke a hypnotic spell of opiated languor.
The intention of casting a spell – perhaps the broadest and most powerful artistic impulse underlying Van Morrison's Astral Weeks (which Nick Drake resembles at moments, though this is not at all a "concept" album) – is here fully realized. Like Astral Weeks, and to a lesser extent Cat Stevens' Mona Bone Jakon, Nick Drake is an addictive record – perhaps even more than its predecessors, since Drake's voice is so softly, seductively sensual. Add to this Drake's own densely textured guitar, plus, of all unpromising elements, shades of Stan Getz and Ramsey Lewis, plus two of the most melancholy string arrangements ever written – and you get a head cocktail in which the "astral" of Van Morrison and the "transcendental" of Donovan are still present, yet seen as passively erotic distortions in a pool of sweet liqueur after a couple of downs and a few tokes.
Could this sort of thing be the Muzak of 1984? It would seem a fair guess. So what keeps Nick Drake from being the Muzak of today? The variety of its musical thought; the intensity of its aesthetic stance; and the superior musicianship of all concerned. Ray Warleigh's alto sax riffs are thrilling – tinged with the anarchic urban wail; likewise Chris McGregor's piano and John Cale's always distinctive contributions (celeste, piano and organ on "Northern Sky," and viola and harpsichord on "Fly").
Drake's songs vary considerably in style from the delightfully simple skipping-down-the-London-street "One of These Things First" to the Astrud Gilberto cafe-romantic ballad, "At the Chime of a City Clock." Drake's tunes, though more or less derivative, are melodically strong and harmonically kinetic. Their high degree of harmonic sophistication is enhanced by the brilliant arrangements, the most ambitious of which, by Harry Robinson, is lavished on "River Man," a mystical reverie with affinities to "Lazy Afternoon."
"Cello Song" is a tour-de-force of Indian-influenced erotic meditation, wherein guitar and cello (Clare Lowther) are interwoven with Drake's husky voice (itself taking a second cello part) to create the most sensuous of textures. On "Poor Boy," an outright gasp of self-pity, the soulful backup voices of Pat Arnold and Doris Troy repeatedly interrupt Drake's lament with the comment, "Oh poor boy/so sorry for yourself." This mockery of self-mockery is wonderfully ironic, but it also enhances the obsessively insomniac quality of the complaint itself – all six and-one-half gorgeous minutes of it.
Drake's greatest weakness--one he shares with all too many of today's male lyric troubadours, especially those from England--is the lack of verbal force in his song lyrics, which by and large could be characterized as nouveau art nouveau. In the case of Drake, this is less serious a liability than it is for artists who are more up front vocally. The beauty of Drake's voice is its own justification. May it become familiar to us all.