Mr. Misery

Why Nick Drake lives on

Liverpool musican Pete Wylie allegedly coined the term optimisery. Definition: The feeling of wanting to fall in love, but knowing the heartbreak that arrives with it. It's an apt sniglet to describe those individuals stumbling through the fragile hedgerows and into the gracefully darkened, blue-smoky garden of English folk artist Nick Drake.

The entry points are everywhere now: Volkswagen adverts ("Pink Moon"), Rolling Stone list-mongering (all three of Drake's albums), even Zach Braff movie soundtracks ("One of These Things First," in Garden State). Drake's work bewitches, even after one song, but similarly betrays: That whispery voice can only be the call of a lapsed soul; those finger-picked melodies play with such an unraveling pathos. Eventually the fledgling listener unearths Drake's tortured timeline: The songwriter suffered through crushing depression, detachment, and self-doubt before dying of an overdose in 1974.

Thanks to UME/Fontana, Drake newbies can immerse themselves in his oeuvre — beleaguered by optimisery or otherwise — more easily than ever. Last month the label reissued Fruit Tree, the 1979 box set that compiles all three of Drake's studio albums. Also included is a 108-page book analyzing his work, as well as a DVD copy of the recent documentary A Skin Too Few.

Few pop artists forged stronger bonds with Britain's rich cadre of poets. Drake's approach was all English romanticism — rooted in recalcitrance (touting isolation over Sixties-style communalism), acceptance of pastoral themes, and staunch individualism. There was a startling variance to his work. From "Day Is Done," convincingly eternal in how it chronicles life's "passing lights," he meanders to the ephemeral "At the Chime of a City Clock," like disappearing ink upon the pages of an urbanite's diary. And because of his premature death, it's clear that Drake's music never evolved into something artificial or compromised.

But the new version of Fruit Tree also arrives with a measure of finality. According to Martin Calliman, manager of the music side of Drake's estate, the release of this album — and this past summer's compilation, Family Tree — means the vaults are officially emptied. "He now has three official studio albums and three compilations," Calliman says. "I think that gives a good cross section to his art." Fortunately the infinite quality of Drake's music ensures he will forever remain in the pop consciousness.

 
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