My relationship with Nick Drake has always been somewhat conflicted. I came across his music at uni, not long after I’d learnt my first few chords on the guitar. The deep, intricate fingerpicking on his three records for Island felt like an entirely different dimension back then, quite beyond the comprehension of my fingers, even if they pleased the ear. So it’s with a certain satisfaction a decade and a half later I can play one of his songs, though it’s a far sloppier version than what you’ll hear on Fives Leaves Left.
Back at university, all my contemporaries were busy raving about Radiohead and Coldplay. Nick belonged to a small cadre of 60s folk musicians whose songs were just mine. No-one else was interested, or so it felt.
The truth of course was that Nick Drake had always enjoyed a cult following, but somewhere in the 00s his star in popular culture suddenly seemed to be shining brighter, some thirty years after his death. His music could be found soundtracking Volkswagen adverts, and Brad Pitt was narrating a documentary about his life on the BBC. I was annoyed; not only because ‘my’ artist was now everyone’s, but also because I felt aggrieved to see Nick elevated above other songwriters of equal value, such as John Martyn or Richard Thompson. To put it darkly, their careers hadn’t had the benefit of mystery and a romantic early death.
Eventually I got over such silly concerns, a large part due to stumbling across some Youtube performances of Nick’s songs by a young artist called Tobias Wilden. Without the added instruments gracing Five Leaves Left and Bryter Later (though not Pink Moon), Wilden’s reverential takes heightened the focus upon Nick’s guitar arrangements. And having travelled a lot further along my own road as a musician, those arrangements (so accurately recreated by Wilden) no longer appeared so mystifying and impenetrable.
In fact, playing Day is Done is really quite simple. It’s a series of cyclical arpeggios and a descending bassline repeated throughout, for the most part nicely broken down in this video. I found the challenge was more about maintaining the accuracy of what I was playing rather than playing the notes themselves. The popular belief is that Nick Drake’s songs are all written in obscure, illogical altered tunings that no-one else could come up with, but Day is Done is in fact written in standard tuning, albeit capoed up at the fifth fret. As such, it was a perfect choice for my guitalele, which plays a 4th above a standard guitar.
What really interested me about Day is Done is the overall structure of the song. It’s really succinct, at just two and a half minutes, and never breaks out from that same repeating motif. There’s no chorus, although some repetition with the opening line of each stanza being repeated at the end. What really interests me though is the irregular length of the verses; two out of the seven verses each have an extra line. Being a little obsessed with symmetry in my own writing, this irregularity feels compellingly organic. It leaves me feeling there was less conscious composition behind writing the song, that the lyrics were written with guitar in hand rather than pen. It leaves me aware that songs should be fluid, and I do myself no favours applying needlessly rigid structures to my own compositions.