Nick Drake’s posthumous recorded output now surpasses the number of albums he released while on this mortal coil. If the well has not been wrung dry, it’s at least close to being empty of everything except backwash; if any posthumous Drake album is released in the next few years, it most likely will be a duets album with Tupac Shakur.
Family Tree is the latest posthumous Drake release (as of this writing). The album consists primarily of lo-fi (though listenable) recordings from Drake’s parent’s home at Far Leys and recordings made by Drake while studying in France. A duet with Drake’s sister Gabrielle and two songs written and performed by his mother (it’s a family tree, get it?) round out the album. Although most of the songs have long been available on bootleg, this marks the first official release of this material.
It is doubtful that casual Nick Drake fans (if such a thing actually exists) will give this album repeated plays. Many of the tracks are short and unfinished, and the sound is far from perfect. This is, bottom line, an archival piece geared toward hardcore Drake fans. The irony of course is that most such fans have probably heard this material before.
However, this release does have some strengths; for example, it shows Drake at a very early stage in his musical development, before Five Leaves Left had not yet even been recorded. Although early versions of “Way To Blue” and “Day Is Done” from that album are not particularly enlightening, it is nice to hear these early versions, even if they are little more than rough sketches. Another strength of the album is that it reveals Drake’s musical influences at the time, ranging from a bunch of old dead dudes most people probably haven’t heard of (Jackson C. Frank, Blind Boy Fuller, and Robin Frederick), to a living dude who some people have heard of (Bert Jansch), to a living dude everyone has heard of (Bob Dylan). The foundation of the Nick Drake sound (gentle guitar, soft voice, natch) can be heard on this release.
The version of folk standard and Joan Baez-abused “All My Trials” is the most striking performance included. Usually sung as an optimistic ode to liberation, Drake’s performance is quiet, reserved, and defeated. Coupled with Drake’s well documented mental issues and early death, the lyrics “all my trials Lord/will soon be over” take on a far more sinister meaning.