"I don’t believe I have ever encountered a less recognised alumni as Drake at Cambridge, albeit an ungraduated one"Twitter/VennArts_Music

As I write, it is 25th November. Forty-seven years ago on this day, the posthumously acclaimed folk artist Nick Drake took his own life, aged just 26. His story has never felt more relevant to me. I grew up with his tender, sombre guitar and haunting vocal cadences echoing off the walls of my parents’ home, not knowing as a child that one day I would be studying the same course in the same Cambridge college, a few doors down from where he once did.

“Unrecognised and interviewed in his lifetime, his shadow casts much further in death”

I don’t believe I have ever encountered a less recognised alumni than Drake at Cambridge, albeit an ungraduated one. His life, like his time at university, was cut short, however the hallmark that he left on the British folk pop scene is an indelible one. Unrecognised and interviewed in his lifetime, his shadow casts much further in death. If not you, surely one of your friends will have listened to and enjoyed Pink Moon, or perhaps their parents have. But his name never graces Fitzwilliam College’s lists of notable alumni. It is perhaps not a story an institution would want to highlight; dropping out in his second year amid a smog of depression and marijuana smoke, Drake left to pour his heart into finishing the recordings for Five Leaves Left.

It’s not his most polished work, but it definitely encapsulates the turmoil of Drake’s life at the time, both staccato and flighty but with a tone aged far beyond his years. There are moments of intense beauty and a sign of things to come: “River Man” and “Cello Song” break through to bring moments of Blakean beauty and a hint of the Romanticism that Drake must surely have been seeking from his brown-bricked, Brutalist accommodation at Fitzwilliam. It is “Saturday Sun” that breaks through this initial lilting haze, where we feel the raw soulfulness that drove his albums into the most recognised annals of folk music in the years after his death.

“The melodies give way to moments that can only be described as a sort of existential pleasure”

Nine months before his graduation, Drake left Cambridge to languish in a series of basements and apartments around Hampstead. Beset by stress from all sides and told by his recording label that he was a ‘genius’ despite the poor marketing and reception of Five Leaves Left, he set about recording Bryter Layter, departing slightly from his pastoral and deeply rural melancholy to create a series of introspective and, at times, playful tracks, alongside John Cale. “One Of These Things First” and “Northern Sky” are clear iterations of Drake at his best; haunting, gentle lyrics that evoke the words of Keats and Blake, amid a slightly more uptempo and jazz-influenced guitar and keyboard arrangement, pushing him into the realms of charting hopefulness and (again, posthumous) widespread recognition. While Bryter Layter should have put him on the map, it yet again performed poorly and Drake retreated at many of his rare live gigs, almost catatonic in front of increasingly smaller crowds.

As a growing psychosis began to accompany his depression, his third and final album, Pink Moon, was unexpectedly produced and presented to Island Records in 1972. The Dalí-esque cover and title track are what many may be most familiar with; they present an almost psychedelic, soothing image of Drake the artist, but with only a hint of the melancholy that plagues, or rather colours, his entire catalogue. At this point in his life Drake had moved back in with his parents, struggling with his antidepressants and failing to see the vision that had been laid out for him when he first signed to a label as a 19-year-old. His former supervision partner encountered him on a train, appalled with how much he had retreated within himself.


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Pink Moon can only be described as a masterpiece. From its astoundingly beautiful, and, for a lack of better words, cozy title track all the way through to the transient tiredness of “From The Morning”, the album pushes the envelope of the affecting nature of folk music as well as Drake’s absolutely unique lyricism and vocal glow. The guitar is as plaintive, complex and vulnerable as ever; the melodies give way to moments that can only be described as a sort of existential pleasure, even if their composer had anything but. It is at once Drake’s most acclaimed and tragic album. Born from the depths of the darkness in his mind, it seems to transcend both genre and mental illness into a wild, lonely, and uniquely English view of the world as seen from very, very far away. Many critics remark that Pink Moon is tragic because it was a sign of wonderful things to come, but with no one at the time to recognise this, it becomes something more akin to Van Gogh’s final works. If you haven’t listened to it, you must.