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Detail, looking like a Jackson Pollock painting, from the album sleeve for The Endless Coloured Ways: The Songs of Nick Drake

The Endless Coloured Ways: The Songs of Nick Drake – a review

The Endless Coloured Ways: The Songs of Nick Drake hits when the artists veer away from the original. All too often, however, loyalty to the source sours the brew.

Release Date
7 July 2023
The Endless Coloured Ways: The Songs of Nick Drake
A great opportunity for a new generation to discover the songs of Nick Drake is partially achieved, but only when the artists involved take the seeds of the songs and run with them. Too often, the album is an example of how getting too close to the original achieves very little at all. Highlights include Emeli Sandé, Katherine Priddy and Stick in the Wheel.

Sometimes you need to re-evaluate. Sometimes you need to wonder whether those music snobs, the geeks, the nerds, are right. Sometimes you need to question the orthodoxies. Is it really true that The Byrds are better than The Beatles? Is it really true that Martin Carthy is the most important singer of the twentieth century? Is it really true that Nick Drake was a fragile god who, temporarily, walked amongst us? 

If you got up from your desk and wandered around, talking to people, would they even know who Nick Drake was? Would they be able to tell you about Aix-en-Provence and Far Leys? Would they be able to tell you of crippling stage fright? Of beautiful Robert Kirby string arrangements? Of three perfect albums? Would they care that Nick Drake is the touchstone against whom every single singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar is judged (by the snobs and nerds, at least)? 

Perhaps that is why The Endless Coloured Ways exists. It’s the 2023 equivalent of the 1986 Hannibal/Ryko re-issue of the Fruit Tree box set. It allows a new generation to discover all of the things we did in the late 80s. If that is the case, then this is, probably, the most worthwhile release of the entire year.

The Endless Coloured Ways is a 23-track compilation of cover versions of some of Drake’s finest moments. There are 32 different artists tackling them with varying degrees of reverence, varying degrees of success. It is, in truth, one of those albums that makes you question the very notion of a cover version. If the version strays too far from what you know, it’s a desecration of a sacred artifact. If it’s too faithful, then what’s the point? Too many here fall squarely into the latter category; some of these artists sound terrified that they are about to spoil something beautiful, that they are about to draw devil horns and a pointy beard on the Mona Lisa.

The truth is that Nick Drake’s songs are so deliriously wonderful, so infused with magic, that they hold up to a bit of playful graffiti. The songs that are most successful are the ones where the artists have got the spray paint out.

The lead track, the one that 6 Music have laid claim to, is ‘Cello Song’, reimagined by Dublin Post-Punkers Fontaines D.C. If the Drake original conjures a pastoral English idyll, then Fontaines drive a great big motorway through it. Twangy bass, handclaps and an unsettling, buzzing cello give the whole thing an urgency that re-invents and re-models. Fontaines D.C. retain their Irish-ness and produce what is, probably, the best single of their career – brilliant songwriting coupled with a great band is always going to win. It’s interesting, when listening to the Grian Chatten solo album, to wonder how much the slower Drake approach might make a difference to what the Dublin band does next. 

Many of the versions take two artists and throw them together, creating some unexpected treats. Bombay Bicycle Club meeting with The Staves for an almost-psych version of ‘Road’ is one such example. Two sets of vocals harmonising beautifully, weaving, twisting and turning. It’s taken off to a slightly unexpected place and is a glowing point of loveliness. American Indie-Folk artist, Skullcrusher, and singer-songwriter, Gia Margaret, make ‘Harvest Breed’ an equally beautiful thing. It starts gently, the creaks and clicks of an acoustic guitar echoing Drake’s intimacy, but it soon builds and swells, a piano and multi-tracked voices swooning until the Pink Moon classic floats dreamily away.

To the surprise of no-one, the most successful versions on the album are by those that have folk music at their heart. Stick in the Wheel‘s ‘Parasite’ is filled with organic clicks, clunks and burbles, Nicola Kearney’s voice icily treated to highlight the disconsolate loneliness of the original. Katherine Priddy‘s ‘I Think That They’re Leaving Me Behind’, taken from the posthumous Family Tree album, is an absolute stand-out. Icicle-melt slow with piano and violin gently building and building until, finally, a Bond-esque lushness blossoms. Priddy’s voice is honeyed, gorgeous. This takes the original and gently wraps it in the most exquisite material, taking the pre-Five Leaves Left demo and making it real. Karine Polwart and Kris Drever take on ‘Northern Sky’, surely one of Drake’s greatest songs, and turn it into a simply stunning duet. A trumpet, very reminiscent of Pete Judge from Three Cane Whale, and xylophone remind you that Drake wasn’t always melancholic. Sometimes, and here especially, there’s hope and love and life.

Perhaps the most surprising version on The Endless Coloured Ways is Emeli Sandé’s ‘One of These Things First’. This is what a cover version should be like; it is respectful without being reverential, it is stamped with personality rather than borrowing someone else’s, it allows a little sliver of the new to peek through the familiar. Sandé’s voice is glorious, church-like and soulful, a swirl of organ and a faintly funky 4/4 beat lifting Drake from the hedgerows and sun-dappled fields and sending him heavenwards. 

There are bigger names on this album but none of them get close to Sandé’s grandeur. Guy Garvey has an obvious love for Nick Drake but his vocal simply can’t compete with the original on ‘Saturday Sun’. You think of Drake’s voice as hushed and delicate but Garvey proves that it has far more depth than that. On ‘Black Eyed Dog’ you long for Rebecca Lucy Taylor (Self Esteem) to howl. Instead, she literally whispers. There’s a shimmer of shiny pop, the ghost of where her track could have gone but sadly it is snuffed out far too quickly, as though she’s scared of having too much fun with it. Ben Harper plays ‘Time Has Told Me’ far too straight and John Grant (very beautifully) recasts Nick Drake as Leonard Cohen. 

If we have to re-evaluate Nick Drake then, maybe, this is the perfect album to do it. Stripped of Drake’s own magic these songs just have to stand up, to be appreciated as wonderful moments, and they do, time and again. If he was just a songwriter, he’d have delivered the best songs most of these artists have ever sung. As snobs, geeks and nerds know though, he was so much more than that. Re-model all you like, there’s still no-one quite as special as Nick Drake.

The Endless Coloured Ways: The Songs of Nick Drake comes out on July 7th. For more info, head to brytermusic.com.