British folk-rock troubadour Nick Drake died from an overdose of anti-depressants in 1974. He was only twenty-six and had recorded just three proper albums — 1969’s Five Leaves Left, 1970’s Bryter Layter, 1972’s Pink Moon — and a pile of scattered tracks. But when the tape recorder was turned on, he had a batting average up there in Robert Johnson range: Almost everything that survives from Drake is significant. The demos that have been available before now — offered as a bonus disc with the 1986 Fruit Tree box set — display an otherworldly melodic gift; the more elaborate album tracks show an artist who knew the atmospheres in which his hollow, sparrow’s-whisper voice would flourish best. Drake often gets dismissed as maudlin or melancholy, a tragic figure who was forever lost in thought or consumed with doubt. But even singing his most ordinary song, he was transfixing.
Further proof of this comes in the form of the new rarities collection, Made to Love Magic, which contains demos captured in 1968 (when Drake was studying at Cambridge University) as well as solo-acoustic sketches of later songs — and a newly discovered piece, “Tow the Line,” which Drake scholars believe is one of the last things he committed to tape. The song, recorded in 1974, was found, unlabeled, at the end of a master tape when original engineer John Wood was mixing this album.
“Tow the Line,” which lasts 2:16, is classic Drake, as simple as “Pink Moon” or any of his later works but almost more compelling because of its assertive, driving rhythm. Drake was an unerringly precise guitarist, and “Tow the Line” is an excellent showcase for his devices: He outlines the verses using a tapestry of delicate, yet tense, descending chords, and then chops out blunt, almost growly blues references on the refrain.
There are other delights on Magic, among them a solo treatment of “River Man” (from Five Leaves Left) without the string orchestra; the somber, anguishing love ode “Clothes of Sand”; and a relaxed journey through “Rider on the Wheel.” Far more interesting than typical demos, laced with the shadowy moods some artists spend years chasing in studios, these casual performances suggest that there was never anything casual about Drake’s art: Even when he was just jotting down some idea, he couldn’t help infecting it with that strange, mournful magic.