ick Drake's Family Tree is three albums in one: a biographical sketch, a songwriting pedigree, and the latest in a growing line of posthumous Drake albums. Which do you want to hear?
Nick Drake grew up in a happy, musically-inclined family. His fans will have already heard the best Drake performances here, but the collection of hissy, treble-heavy home recordings is deliberately revealing of the home in which they were made. Drake’s performance of “All My Trials” with his sister Gabrielle illuminates both the distance he traveled from a resonant, drawing room upper-class delivery, and the head-nodding, eyes-half-closed rapport of harmonizing siblings. The entirely inessential inclusion of a family performance of a Mozart Trio, with Drake on clarinet, only thickens the sense of indulgent familial dabbling.
Stranger still, and more expository, are the two contributions by Drake’s mother Molly Drake (such wonderfully English names! Like a Beatrix Potter character.). The first, “Poor Mum,” apparently written by Nick, yields the doubletaking experience of Molly’s breathy, precise soprano singing her son’s acutely melancholic lyrics about a woman subdued by motherhood: “Joy as it flies cannot be caught.” Drake’s pinpoint, dispassionate observation started early and strong. The mystery is whether the perfectly-rendered child’s appeal finale was Nick’s touch or Molly’s. Time and mortality imparts unwonted foreboding to Molly’s own composition, “Try to Remember,” which closes the album on a wisftul, lachrymose note: “Do you ever remember / Now you’re so far away… There were so many gay times / Before it all went oh so wrong.” Yet still more striking is the song’s reaching into poignant passing dissonances, a signature Nick technique; he both embodied and exceeded his familial heritage.
Family Tree’s portrait of the artist as a young man with a tape deck suggests lineages both obvious and obscure. Should we hear the genesis of “Cello Song” in the quavering violin (his sister’s?) that accompanies the Mozart Trio? Is his odd pronunciation of “Cocaine Blues”—something like “caucayne”—the result of mimicking American folksinging heroes like Dylan or Van Ronk, both of whom he covers here?
Drake’s singing becomes steadily more confident and subtle over the course of the album, growing into the subliminal monologue of his best songs as he begins to write his own melodies. The mystic yen in “Strange Meeting II” owes a debt to Dylan’s rotoscope imaginary; Drake never sounds entirely comfortable with it, and his preserved explanation (he describes it as “my surrealist song”) betrays the restlessness of ongoing seeking for the center of his songs. Yet his gentle, preoccupied rendition of “Way to Blue,” accompanied only by his own piano, incipient and nearly stilted, is more affecting than the version you know.
Family Tree traces a path to Drake’s pastoral songs, but it does little to compete with or challenge them—it is an album of avowed doodles and sketches, justified by the foreclosure of any other material. It is a collection of dead ends that pull in contradictory directions—the closet-rollicking “Black Mountain Blues,” the stentorian pastoral “Blossom.” The conventional wisdom is “Oh, what he might have done if only…” but this will do little to further that line: if this was top-shelf Drake we would already have heard it.
But, particularly because Drake’s existing albums are so self-contained and perfectionist, there is a rare occasional pleasure in Family Tree’s discordance: the fey experiment of “Time Piece” or the oddly appropriate door-creak, as though the song had never been heard before. On “Come Into the Garden,” there is another music behind Drake’s guitar—it sounds a bit like a gramophone playing snippets of Proms orchestration, and it seems to ebb and flow with Drake’s own cadences, never rising above a dying harmonic echo. I’ve no idea where the sound comes from.