Prophet Margins

13-track compilation features newly discovered track and a little dubious tinkering

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Now that he’s made entirely of myth, it’s getting harder to evaluate Nick Drake’s true worth as an artist. Had, say, Steve Tilston or Keith Christmas slipped their surly bonds in 1974, rather than continuing to plough and plod away, would we now be eulogising their legacy and using their work to sell Volkswagen cars?

This latest compilation of Drake’s work adds further fuel to the legend in the shape of a previously unheard track, “Tow The Line”, recorded during the 1974 sessions that yielded Drake’s final clutch of songs. With a melody line that’s mildly reminiscent of Bryter Layter’s “Chime Of A City Clock”, it has something of the redeeming lyrical quality of Pink Moon’s closing track, “From The Morning”. Indeed, the accompanying press blurb claims that “Tow The Line” is a song “full of assurance and contemplative calm”, and questions the received notion that Nick was at the end of his emotional tether in 1974. That bold assertion might have more credibility if the new track wasn’t immediately preceded on this compilation by “Black Eyed Dog”, the most ghostly, unsettling song Nick Drake ever wrote by an unlit country mile, or indeed if the lyrics to “Tow The Line” didn’t throw down the one-loaded-chamber gambit, “Tonight is the night we win or lose all.”

Debate still rages over Drake’s worth as a lyricist. There are those who claim that his abilities never rose above sixth-form musings. Others, most notably the late lan MacDonald in his masterful essay “Exiled From Heaven”, identify a highly codified symbolist poetry of the most accomplished kind. Proponents of the former school will find supportive evidence in “Tow The Line” ‘s simplistic rhyming schemes, advocates of the latter in its obtuse imagery.

More controversial perhaps is the inclusion of newly arranged versions of “I Was Made To Love Magic” and “Time Of No Reply”. Leaving aside for a moment the issue of whether we would do this to, let’s say, Dylan when he’s gone, the posthumous addition of Robert Kirby’s originally intended string arrangements to a time-stretched backing track bring mixed rewards. “Time Of No Reply” seems entirely in keeping with the artist’s original intentions, whereas “I Was Made To Love Magic” sounds somewhat cloying and superfluous, and leaves you wondering if we haven’t been underrating Clifford T Ward and Colin Blunstone all along.

Much more successful, not to mention myth-demolishing, is the version of “Three Hours”, a carefree studio jam between Drake, “Reebop” Kwaakhu Baah on congas, and an anonymous flautist (probably Chris Wood, possibly Harold McNair).

Slip the headphones on and imagine a parallel 1974 where a confident Drake is performing with a makeshift duo at the Festival Hall. Sponsored by no one.

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