Second Look: Nick Drake – Pink Moon

Nick Drake was the kind of person who never seemed to have things go his way. The initial release of his first two albums, Five Leaves Left in 1969 and Bryter Layter in 1970, sold abysmally. Drake himself was in a constant state of depression most of his adult life. He seemed to avoid contact with his friends and family, as he found it more comfortable smoking pot by himself than interacting with others. Particularly, after the weak sales of Bryter Layter, Drake became even more depressed, to the point that he secluded himself in his London apartment for a year and then left his home for Spain the next year. With his record label Island Records not expecting a third album from Drake, in October 1971, after coming back to London from Spain, he told his producer John Wood that he had songs he wanted to record. To everyone’s surprise, it only took the next two late midnight sessions later to create one of folk’s deepest and most emotional records ever that would become Pink Moon.

Pink Moon is an eleven song LP released on February 25, 1972. Within the 28 minutes it lasts, Nick Drake professed his soul in a way that can be best described as a more stripped-down, acoustic version of himself. With his first two albums, he had a whole band backing him up, grand production, and fullness in nearly every song. During the first of his two midnight sessions, he completed every song with just his delicate voice and an acoustic guitar. No overdubbed vocals, no over-production, just a simple recording of his songs the way he felt they needed to be. The only exception to this is on the second night of recording, where he played a beautifully simple piano overdub on the title track and the opening track, “Pink Moon.”

“Pink Moon” is a song with a straightforward message, but an uncertain meaning. Sung in Drake’s distinct smooth soulful voice, he tells us that our fate is coming soon: “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.” Like most of his songs off this album, they come off as poetic and bleak, like a dark sorrowed soul that lived within him. This song might be about a malicious feeling infecting the people who surround him, or it could simply be a metaphor for death coming for them no matter how tall they stand. As terrible as that sounds, he doesn’t sing it in just a sad way, but more haunting with a heavy heart, like he’s given up on saving himself and others, which reflected well on his own life at the time. Similarly, his guitar gives a chord-filled, harmonic melody while the piano break in the middle of the song offers a nice break and sets the mood for this depressing outlook into the near future.

“Place To Be” is a much more structured song than the previous track, with three stanzas describing three different parts of his life: naivety, rejection, and desperation. The love for this girl that Drake missed so much makes this one of the more emotional tracks on Pink Moon. In each verse, he compares moments of times before when he was happy to the moments present where he is in need for the girl he has lost. In “Road,” he takes a different approach about love where it makes him seem okay with the loss, as opposed to felling heartbroken about it, telling her “You can take the road that takes you to the stars now/ I can take the road that’ll see me through.”

After “Which Will,” a mellifluous song about indecisiveness with life’s given choices (clearly another page ripped out of his book), Drake plays his only instrumental of the album, “Horn.” Although the entire album is done with his acoustic guitar, and this is no different, the delicately strummed, soft guitar of “Horn” can act as the beautiful transitional period in between the album.

Following the short piece, “Things Behind The Sun” clocks in at just under four minutes, making it the longest song on the album. Here, Drake again sings about the shallow people who surround his life (“them that stare”) and how they can be however they want, but he can see past the sense of semblance and see that they’re all still sad inside. The depression that slowly filled his own life made it that much easier to see how everyone else in the world is just as depressed as him, with only their phony façade covering up their real feelings. The way he describes it all in song is extremely poetic and mysterious, ultimately asking “Who will hear what I say?” which makes everything look even more desolate.

“Know” is the least difficult song to understand, but also one of the most clever. There are no complex guitar chords, but just a simple two-second long bluesy beat played repeatedly over the course of the song. For the first half, he hums to himself for awhile, then declares painfully “Know that I love you/ Know I don’t care/ Know that I see you/ Know I’m not there.” These unsettling lyrics need nothing more to say to get the point across. Lines one and three are the role of him, while lines two and four are told from the point of view of the one he desires. The juxtaposition of these lines not only show how he is so rejected from the people he loved, but it can also be interpreted that it’s “no” instead of “know” for the opposite’s lines. It is brilliant lyrics like these that make this one of the strongest songs on Pink Moon.

Further on in the record, he relates himself as being a worthless bug, better off dead (“Parasite”), and an effortless weak soul who contributes to nothing (“Free Ride”), but what finishes his deed is “Harvest Breed.” While some of the songs featured prior to this one develop some slight chance of hope, “Harvest Breed” is without question the song about his acceptance and acknowledgement of his impending death. Singing simply that “he’s ready” and that “this could be the end” makes this a dramatic finish to his life through song. His hopelessness clouds any positive thoughts he might have had before and, as if the previous nine songs projected his outlook on the unwelcoming life he lived, this is the point where he lets go and starts “falling fast and falling free.”

After what can only be assumed as a strikingly ominous, eerie ending to the album, along comes the real last track of Pink Moon “From the Morning,” which takes on a completely different change of pace. After hearing ten tracks of depression, emotionally sick times, and anguish, “From the Morning” is sung with the most upbeat approach imaginable for Drake. The guitar is colorful and rhythmic and Drake’s lyrics reflect this as well, clearing up his cloudy mind and singing about what life has to offer that is beautiful: “So look see the days/ The endless colored ways/ And go play the game you learnt/ From the morning.” It’s as if the Pink Moon shone over Drake during the gloomiest moments of his life and throughout the album, while the sun rising in “From the Morning” represents a new life, a new direction to take. It may even just be Drake’s soul ascending to the heavens and relaying how this might not be the place for him, but don’t give up your own life for what he couldn’t appreciate. It’s such an impressive way to end an album that seemingly acts as one big story for Drake’s disheartened life at the time and still giving himself that extra message to keep on going, because the sun will rise again.

Unfortunately, the sun never did rise for Nick Drake again. Pink Moon had worse initial sales than his first two albums originally sold, which sent him into a worse depression and insomnia. On November 25, 1974, at the young age of 26, he died of an overdose of his prescribed antidepressant. Whether it was an accident or suicide was never determined, but looking back on the songs he sang, it acted more like what was to come of Drake than anything. Two years before his death, he knew he wasn’t going to last very long.

More importantly though, his fame slowly rose as big artists from the ’80s and ’90s, such as R.E.M., The Cure, Jeff Buckley, and Elliot Smith began recognizing him as a big influence for their music. He hit an even bigger audience when his song “Pink Moon” was used for a Volkswagen Cabrio commercial in 1999 titled “Milky Way” and eventually led his album to receive huge sales. Slowly he became a more noticeable figure in the music world and by the end of the ’90s, he was a household name to fans and critics, receiving high honors from multiple acclaimed sources, such as the 13th best album of the ’70s by Pitchfork and 320th best album of all time by Rolling Stone.

For a man who felt so small in his time, looking back on it now, Nick Drake created for many more people what is considerably one of the most emotionally draining and most influential folk albums of all time. This is the classic example of how one person can pour every last bit of themselves into an album with such raw despondency and without all of the unnecessary amounts of overproduction to make up for it. No one at Island Records or his producer expected him to make this album, but it’s possible he did it to preserve his life and dying wish before he knew he’d soon be gone. He may have died a tragically early death, but it’s great to see that he became recognized for his genius lyrics and albums like Pink Moon, even if he thought it was certain it would never go his way.