As a casual Nick Drake fan there are a few things I very much dig about the deceased. Foremost among them was his ability to zero in on and execute an emotion. The fact that that emotion 90% of the time was, let’s say ‘less than content,’ only intensified my feelings of connection with the artist. Lamentably, I am a healthy upper-class white male born into more privilege and opportunity than just about anyone anywhere at any time in history. I can thoroughly identify with the burning question, “What else is there?” After the drunk, after the high, after the orgasm all wears off I get stranded in the doldrums of emotion scratching my head at the belief there has to be something more to life than this.
While Nick Drake was instrumental in the foundation of the modern white boy blues, the genre hasn’t fared so well coming down the years. It is questionable whether or not the artist committed suicide but since his over-dose suburbanite teenagers have taken a legitimate angle at songwriting and subverted it into a self serving, convoluted, belly ache parade. It can still be done well but for the most part its been so over-done (thanks a lot emo) by such a rampant pack of emotionless amateurs one no longer questions why rock n’ roll is so boring these days.
While greatly looking forward to this project on the basis of subject content alone I’ve come to fear this type of ‘tribute’ album. Look no further than the unmitigated failure of last year’s Linda McCartney tribute. Most contributions detract from rather than multiply the intensity, forbearance or soul of the original material. It seems these projects are merely vehicles for less gifted musicians to get their name out into the putrid trash heap of the public conscious.
After digesting Way to Blue, I see little to separate it from the aforementioned. Most tracks shy away from the sublime, purely musical element and rely rather heavily on vocalization. Vocalist are the streetwalkers of the music industry, they’re cheap, passionless imitations of the real act, easily disposable and devoid of that creative spark which could be called human. There are notable exceptions of course–mostly where the artists keep pretty close to the style and delivery of the original track. Scott Matthews must be recognized for his effort on “Place to Be” and his version of “When the Day is Done” leading into Luluc‘s cover of “Fly.” The final two together are a pretty powerful combination blow. As well Vashti Banyun (her of equal Drake-esque post-career fame) delivers what I believe to be the only improvement to source material with “Which Will.” It is a stunning track with exquisite orchestral work.
For the whole though, these live tracks rarely translate well to album format. Applause has been deleted (Thank God!), and it would seem more attention was given to audio production value than say design or delivery. See the horrible decision to jazz up “Poor Boy” and the willowy, obnoxious vocals on “Fruit Tree.” Both of which pale in comparison to the excruciatingly painful four-minutes-in-hell that is Lisa Hannigan‘s version of “Black Eyed Dog.” I used to enjoy that song, Ms. Hannigan. Thanks for ruining it for me, forever. While listening to it the single time my masochistic side would allow, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between it and that recent film Spring Breakers. Both are about as enjoyable as scurvy and both were written by drug addled, feeble minds. However, unlike the over inflated hype heaped inexplicable upon Harmony Korine, Nick Drake had this thing called talent whereas the horrible film undoubtedly improved whatever Mr. Korine vomited onto paper. Ms. Hannigan’s treatment of “Black Eyed Dog” was nothing less than an insult.
I know this project was a recording of several live productions and that therein lay the logistics of touring versus available willing performers but I can’t help but wonder where in the hell was Devandra Banhart during the whole brainstorming spit session that lead up to Way to Blue? Where were any of the new weird crowd that actually re-popularized the style and artist himself? If I had to guess, they probably avoided it if they were ever consulted.
What the powers that be behind the conception of Way to Blue obviously didn’t understand was the pure intimacy Mr. Drake brought to the original recordings. I’m not even going to extrapolate on the foresight involved in the right hand focus the artist exhibited decades ahead of others. I’m also not going to mock this production by asking what’s next, an Aeroplane Over the Sea show tune tribute, or perhaps a reworking to make everything desultory about Leonard Cohen we love more commercially accessible?
There were bright spots on this recording so I cannot openly shame the whole idea. However, for those who’ve suffered through this review without even knowing what I’ve become so livid about I will offer this advice: to see how this project could have been done well listen to Nick Drake’s own haunting cover of “Been Smoking Too Long.” Note the stripped to the bone recording method, note the self-referencing lyrics, note the hopeless beauty and the trapped, desperate delivery. Note the sense of doom that eventually played itself out in real time for this forgotten artist. Now rethink whatever big ambition you’ve had about popularizing the deceased to the upper crust New Yorker cultured class and give it the fucking soul the material deserves.