With Family Tree, a twenty-eight track compilation featuring unreleased tracks, rare covers and outtakes, the number of posthumous Nick Drake releases now outnumbers his proper album output by two to one. (He released three studio albums before dying in 1974 at age twenty-six; the apparent cause was an overdose of anti-depressants.) But unlike those for such artists as Jimi Hendrix or Tupac Shakur, these excursions into Drake’s back pages resemble not so much an aural necrophilia-for-profit as they do an attempt to shed light on Nick Drake the Enigma — a deeply troubled young man who rarely gave interviews or performed live; of whom there is not one pixilated motion picture, only still photos; who quietly recorded his moving, acoustic-laden folk albums and then sent them out into the world with little to no fanfare. A man whose record label, Island, had no idea he was working on a third full-length (1972’s wearied sigh, Pink Moon) until he laid the haunting, despair-soaked reel-to-reel tapes on a label secretary’s desk and disappeared to his parents’ home in Tanworth-in-Arden.
Avoiding heavy-handed overdubs, producer remixes, and carbon-copy alternate takes that tower against the skyline of most posthumous discs, Family Tree is that all-too-rare breed of compilation — one that is as powerful, majestic, and necessary as the canon it’s helping to augment. Comprising entirely home recordings made at his parents’ estate, the oft-bootlegged Family Tree presents Drake a year before the release of his first album, 1969’s Five Leaves Left. It finds him accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and, on a few occasions, his mother, Molly, and sister, British actress Gabrielle Drake, whose melodic, Nico-like vocals join him on a luminous cover of the traditional folk ballad “All My Trials.”
Such traditional folk and blues covers make up most of the album, with Drake taking such classic, hellhound-on-my-trail vamps as “Cocaine Blues” and “Here Come the Blues” (the latter featuring the chilling line “No bottle of pills, babe/ Could kill this pain”) and transforming them into music that is unmistakably his own: the hushed vocals, possessed with a laconic intensity; the sinuously nimble acoustic picking; the sense of foreboding, of some unnamed darkness just around the bend.
Of the handful of unreleased originals on the album, the ballad “Blossom” is the obvious standout; with its autumnal melancholy and lovely melody, it’s hard not to imagine this near-masterpiece being sequenced in another of Wes Anderson’s pastel phantasmagorias of pop heartbreak. Family Tree also includes several in-between fragments of Drake as he’s never been heard before — joking with family and friends, reading poetry, speaking in bizarre accents, and giggling over looping guitar noodles — as well as a twenty-four-page book containing never-before-released family photos.
As the songs and shards of conversation weave in and out of one another, Family Tree grows into a sepia-toned tapestry of roots music, refracted through Drake’s prism of austere British folk — essentially, it’s the U.K.’s long-overdue response to Dylan’s Basement Tapes, and that’s no overstatement. Like that much-bootlegged collection, it’s a near-perfect portrait of the artist as a young man looking back on old art in an old country, searching to find how the two elements collude, influencing not only one another, but the artist himself. In this way, the title Family Tree takes on an added resonance: It is Drake’s musical lineage that shines most brightly here, not his genetics. It’s also why this album may speak more deeply for and about Drake than any of his earlier, now-classic releases; with its collage of influences, originals, spoken-word poetry, images of his darkness and his light, Family Tree transcends the age-crusted mythos of Nick Drake the Enigma and gives us a brief but lucky glimpse of simply Nick Drake.