When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Damien Jurado takes on Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
As told by David Sandison, the press officer who worked for Island Records during Nick Drake’s tenure on the label, the story behind Pink Moon is as enigmatic as the songwriter himself. Having sold just a few thousand copies of debut Five Leaves Left and follow-up Bryter Layter, Island was not banking on another Drake release after 1970, much less one that would fly off the shelves. Notoriously withdrawn, Drake made few live appearances in the years between Bryter Layter and Pink Moon and rarely made himself available for interviews, opting to keep mostly to himself and amidst his small cadre of friends. Despite bankrolling Drake’s flat, Island reps for a time weren’t even sure he still lived in London, and along with their hopes that he would ever promote his work for the label, checks to the reclusive songwriter came to a halt. Then, out of nowhere, the master tapes of Pink Moon were placed by Drake on a desk at Island Records HQ completely unsolicited, a spare collection of songs stripped of much but his unmistakable voice, finessed acoustic guitar playing and the occasional piano melody. And as soon as he arrived, Drake was gone, eventually moving back into his parents’ Far Leys home, where he would overdose on prescription antidepressants in autumn 1974.
Despite the underwhelming reaction to Drake’s work while he was alive, the Sandison press release made clear that the Island crew was behind him for artistic reasons as much as business ones:
We believe that Nick Drake is a great talent. His first two albums haven’t sold a shit, but if we carry on releasing them, maybe one day, someone in authority will stop to listen to them properly and agree with us, and maybe a lot more people will get to hear Nick Drake’s incredible songs and guitar playing. And maybe they’ll buy a lot of records and fulfill our faith in Nick’s promise. Then. Then we’ll have done our job.
It almost goes without saying that this sentiment has rarely (if ever) been expressed by major-label executives in the last couple of decades, as the concept of nurturing an artist has been nearly annihilated in an era of ever-slumping sales figures and the modern tendency to market an image versus actual art. Thankfully, independent labels such as Merge, Sub Pop, Anti-, Secretly Canadian and countless others picked up the slack, and we’re now in a time when music made for music’s sake is readily available the world over in any format you can imagine. Indeed, if Drake were making music today, I imagine he’d buck the major-label machine to work with an indie; that is, if he didn’t simply release the work himself.
It’s unsurprising that Damien Jurado would cover Drake considering their folk-y songs share a poignantly naked quality. Over his 15-year career, the Seattle-based songwriter has evolved his sound, to be sure, but at its heart is always a quiet thoughtfulness that recalls Drake’s unique ability to appear haunted, but detached. Even in the most propulsive riffs of I Break Chairs, Jurado’s heaviest record by far, is a songsmith’s touch, his vivid lyrics painting pictures far more penetrating than their upbeat musical counterparts. A shared penchant for literary songs isn’t the only mutual ground that Jurado and Drake inhabit, though. Jurado is also vastly under-appreciated in his time and space. In fact, when I read Sandison’s motive for continuing to release Drake’s music despite all business-oriented rationale, I couldn’t help but think that, to some extent, the same chosen ignorance of financial considerations must play out in the Secretly Canadian offices each time Jurado has another record in the can.
Self-released in 2006 after a one-hour recording session that saw Jurado record “as many [Drake] songs as [he] knew,” Jurado’s version of “Pink Moon” is essentially a mirror image of Drake’s, a simple affair that was never intended for anything other than a gift to then-bandmate Eric Fisher. Though it’s hard to argue that one is better than the other for that very reason—we don’t know if Jurado would’ve tweaked the song more if it was intended for a proper release—the cover is worth discussing because it cements how similar the two songwriters really are. Thousands of others could (and have) played the spare Drake arrangement, but few could emulate him like Jurado, whose warm, meditative bellow and softly strummed guitar could’ve been played by Drake’s ghost.
Cast your vote wisely: