Monday, February 7, 2011

Listening Mode : Pink Moon

“Pink Moon” is often regarded as Nick Drake’s best album. There’s a lot of truth to that, although we may be biased by the fact that it is the artist’s final work. There are, of course, polished gems like “Things behind the sun”, “Place to be”, “Parasite”, with sophisticated chord progressions and complex lyrics. But it’s arguable whether tracks like “Horn”, “Free Ride” or “Know” show Drake at his best, composition-wise. “Five Leaves Left”, in that regard, is more cohesive.

On the other hand, “Pink Moon” is Drake’s truly timeless album : a guitar and a voice, captured with intimate, detailed precision. “Five Leaves Left” and especially “Bryter Layter” sound dated in comparison, with their typical late-60’s English folk arrangements.

“Know”, “Pink Moon” and such embryonic songs can’t help but capture imagination. Their brevity alone is striking, like stark musical aphorisms. “Know” only features a primitive, hypnotic and, well, somewhat uninspired guitar riff, far-cry from the elaborate arrangements of his previous output. But then Drake wails : “Know that I love you - Know I don’t care - Know that I see you - Know I’m not there”. That’s all he has to say. I’m fine with that. This really set the tone of the album, which sounds less like flowery poetry and more like a factual observation of one’s state of distress.

“Parasite” is exemplary. “Take a look you may see me on the ground - For I am the parasite of this town”. That kind of statement may look commonplace after New Wave, Grunge and so on… But this is 1972, remember… such confessional lyrics are somewhat unusual to the era, and especially unusual for Drake, who would generally use a much more circumvoluted and abstract vocabulary. But now the man is down and he tells us so in no uncertain terms. That is what you do when you’re at the bottom and you don’t give a damn about what the world will think of that display of honesty.

The words even verge on nihilism: “Hearing the trials of the people there - Who’s to care if they lose”. The whole song is a cry of alienation, reflected elsewhere on the album by his plea for a shelter : “And I was green, greener than the hill - Where flowers grew and sun shone still - Now I’m darker than the deepest sea - Just hand me down, give me a place to be”. That is the portrait of the artist as a metaphysical outsider. When you don’t fit in, there is no place to be, as in “to exist”.

The choice of words is also remarkable. The pastoral imagery of the first couple of sentences brings us back to his early, “English-countryside-poetry” work, a nod to the delicate, civilized and peaceful wanderings of “Five Leaves Left”. The nostalgia here is striking since Drake is only alluding to three years in the past. He was green at the time, but 1972 is darker than the deepest sea. There’s only guitar on most of “Pink Moon”, giving the same sense of isolation and dread than Springsteen’s tenebrous “Nebraska” album.

There’s still something of that youthful style, and interestingly so, Drake has chosen to close the album with a fairly optimistic and serene “From the morning” that could easily feature on “Five Leaves Left”. Pure esthetical choice, heartfelt feeling of completion despite the bleakness at the work’s core? Who knows…

What we do seem to know is that, having completed the album, Drake just left the tapes at the record company’s desk, wrapped in an anonymous envelope. Only after several days did the company realize that the new Nick Drake album was here. Cioran once said that an obscure writer with no readers feels at his publishing house like an aging whore with no clients at the brothel.

These songs were recorded almost 40 years ago. The man and his suffering, which meant all the universe to him, all is lost. Every now and then I read something what would have happened if he hadn’t die so young, and speculations on the cause of his apparent suicide. Well, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether you live 20 years or 80 years. Life is a process of exhaustion. Or as Shestov put it, life, to sustain itself, must destroy itself. The small victories you held dear when you were a kid are null today. Whatever prize you think you’re winning by making it through 80, you’re taking it to the grave. Hence, regarding voluntary death, motive especially doesn’t matter. Suicide arises from the belief that life is a purposeless void, thus it makes no difference whether the trigger is personal catastrophe or a flat tire. Nick Drake died because he couldn’t live anymore, and I guess that’s it.

"I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get you all
It's a pink moon
It's a pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon"

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