There’s probably never been a better time to release a Nick Drake box set. Since the issue and promotion of the Way To Blue compilation in 1994, interest in his delicate, melancholic songs and character has steadily grown.
Recently there have been discs of early home recordings and appearances on soundtracks and adverts. Most tellingly, Drake is an evident influence on, if not an outright template for, the current breed of sensitive doe-eyed singer-songwriter with shoulder-length hair and wistful lyrics about feeling one step removed from the hustle and bustle of the modern world.
High time, then, for a reworking of 1979′s pricey and premature Fruit Tree box set, which sold poorly given that Drake was still little more than a cult artist at the time. This tidier and more affordable release – also entitled Fruit Tree – offers a pared-down back catalogue (just the three studio albums), with a DVD of Jeroen Berkvens’ 2000 documentary A Skin Too Few and a 108-page booklet.
Heard in sequence, the albums provide a potent biographical document. Much of Five Leaves Left was written while studying contentedly at Cambridge, and there is a palpable sense of ease in how the traditional lyrical and musical influences to which he was exposed there (Keats, Blake, classical instrumentation, the chanson) infiltrate and bolster the gentle folkiness of the album. It recalls the hushed intimacy of Leonard Cohen‘s early work – warm and emotionally balanced; often unfairly pigeonholed as glum.
Bryter Layter pulls in different directions, mirroring his move to London and growing ambition but inability to cope with an unpredictable world. The sound is more expansive, still rooted in folk but looking outwards rather than backwards for embellishment. The gospel, blues and jazz flourishes create a breezy sound, but the psychological cracks are evident from his lyrics: “when the world it gets so crowded that you can’t look out the window in the morning.”
1972′s Pink Moon, played on guitar and piano by Drake alone, is the work of a man in withdrawal. It sounds brittle, bleak and frightening. Publicity shots of the time show his impish grin replaced by a hollow stare. Just over two years after its release, he was dead from an overdose of antidepressants.
The DVD tracks this artistic and emotional arc. In the absence of any filmed footage of the artist, Berkvens gain insights into his emotional world via candid and moving interviews with friends and relatives. Shots of bucolic English landscapes and Warwickshire market towns on misty November mornings are an effective, if predictable, choice of visual to support the music. And the obligatory music-doc men with beards sliding faders up and down on a mixing desk are much easier to bear given that they’re often close to tears when recalling Drake’s decline and death.
There are only two niggles here. The music and film work effectively together as a biographical document, with each period of Drake’s working life expressed through a separate album and separate DVD chapter. So, the omission of the four songs recorded shortly before his death feels wrong – as the film makes much of this period of his life, it would seem appropriate to complement this with the songs which offer the greatest insight into his depression and frustrations.
The accompanying booklet gives a track-by-track breakdown of song construction and the recording process, but these technical elaborations on chord structures and time signatures sit uncomfortably with the accessible feel of the rest of the package.
Fruit Tree is an elegantly packaged set with much to stimulate both casual fans and collectors, without being pitched squarely at either.