Listen to this track by British folk singer-songwriting savant Nick Drake. It’s “One Of These Things First”, a track off of his 1970 LP Bryter Layter, his second record and known to be the most accessible of his small, yet extremely potent, body of work.
Nick Drake only released three records during his lifetime, and every one of them sounded different. Baroque, folk, pop, jazz, and starkly-rendered solo acoustic textures are some of the major stylistic bases he explored on his three albums that are now all considered essential by anyone with an opinion that matters.
Although his work was varied, and was arguably the first stages in his process of finding his voice as a major artist, Nick Drake’s music contains a common undercurrent at the centre of all of his records.
One key thread in his work is that of the nature of existence, and its seeming randomness, its delicate complexity as to be found in the details often missed by those not sensitive to notice them.
In those stakes, “One Of These Things First” is a colossus of a tune, a stand-out in a short career of standouts. But, what is the real deal with this tune when it comes to what it says about Nick Drake?
Having studied English literature at Cambridge, and having been interested in French existential poetry, it’s no wonder Nick Drake ended up in the creative lyrical regions he did when it came time to write songs. His songs in general are the examination of life in its details, “of heaven in a wild flower “as William Blake put it in his “Augaries of Innocence”, and that line being the title of a posthumous Nick Drake compilation record, too.
Being described as withdrawn to say the least, and born with “a skin too few“, it’s also no wonder that Drake’s songs are often centered not around people, feelings, and relationships, but rather around objects – city clocks, pink moons, sheds, rivers, things behind the sun. With this song, the lines blur between human life and still life, which considering Drake’s purported discomfort with social situations, makes sense too. You know where you are with inanimate objects, right? Or, do you?
This song asks “what if life is entirely random, and identity is an illusion?” Or is it “what if life and identity are more varied then we think they are?” Either way, there are potentially no limits to the possibilities of what form life can take, just because it is so mysterious. There are certainly no limits to it when it comes to writing songs about it either. Yet even if this song concerns itself with rocks, boots, kettles, signposts, and others, it’s hardly devoid of humanity. My favourite line is “could’ve been your friend”.
Yes, Nick. You probably could have.
You can learn more about the making of this record, and about its author, on this Bryer Layter page of the Nick Drake website.
[Update, November 25, 2014 – Here’s a link to Gabrielle Drake interviewed by The Guardian about her brother Nick, and a book which she’s written about him. The article casts some light on Nick’s illness, and how it affected his family life, as well as his hope that his music had some beneficial effect on listeners.]