Pink Moon is folk icon Nick Drake’s third and last full album — and at less than thirty minutes, it can seem as starkly foreshortened as the singer’s life, which ended in 1974 when he was twenty-six. But as one of Drake’s friends put it, “If something’s that intense, it can’t be measured in minutes.” Rousing himself out of one of the paralyzing depressions that plagued him in his last years, Drake recorded these eleven tracks in two nights, often in just one take. He accompanies himself only on acoustic guitar, except for the title track, on which he overdubs a brief, lovely piano part.
By the time of these sessions, Drake had retreated so deeply into his own internal world that it is difficult to say what the songs are “about.” His lyrics are so compressed as to be kind of folkloric haikus, almost childishly simple in their structure (“Which will you go for/Which will you love”) and elemental in their imagery (“And I was green, greener than the hill/ Where flowers grow and the sun shone still”). His voice conveys, in its moans and breathy whispers, an alluring sensuality, but he sings as if he were viewing his life from a great, unbridgeable distance. That element of detachment is chilling. To reinforce it, messages of isolation gradually float to the surface of the songs’ spare, eloquent melodies. “You can say the sun is shining if you really want to,” he sings on “Road,” as if daylight were merely a subjective perception that he could not summon the will to sustain. “I can see the moon and it seems so clear.” “I’m darker than the deepest sea,” he observes in “Place to Be.”
It makes unfortunate sense in this age of marketing that what has partially rescued Drake from a quarter-century of obscurity is neither the admiration of artists ranging from R.E.M. to Elton John nor the generations of critics who have sung his praises, but a Volkswagen ad. Lack of recognition in his lifetime deepened Drake’s constitutional despair and may well have contributed to his death from a (possibly intentional) drug overdose. He despised commercialism, of course, but let’s hope that wherever he is, he can at least enjoy the irony.