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'Winter Is Gone,' but a Chill Remains

Even in allegedly happier times, Nick Drake seemed to sing from the brink of his own doom.
Even in allegedly happier times, Nick Drake seemed to sing from the brink of his own doom.

Nick Drake never bothered with other people's material on the three albums released in his lifetime. Part of that may have been due to the specific sadness at the core of his music, which was idiosyncratic enough that finding kindred spirits from which to borrow couldn't have been a simple task. But the traditional ballad "Winter Is Gone," from the new rarities collection Family Tree, shows that his melancholy didn't sprout from nothingness.

Recorded direct to reel-to-reel at Drake's home in allegedly happier times, the song captures the dark spirit of the strain of British folk music that reveled in the contrast between the setting and the occasion. "Winter is gone and the leaves are green," Drake begins, but his defeated vocal, the descending minor-key progression and the constricted, circular fingerpicking all drop hints that what should be a celebration of rebirth is undercut by something more sinister.

Only a handful of details break through, but the picture they paint is vivid enough: a noose, an unfaithful lover and a man resolutely (and futilely) proclaiming his innocence. He's singing from the brink of his own doom, but instead of cowering, he stares it down with an emotionless resolve, as though it's his duty to stand firm and let others bear witness. It sounds, more than anything, like a Nick Drake song.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Marc Hirsh lives in the Boston area, where he indulges in the magic trinity of improv comedy, competitive adult four square and music journalism. He has won trophies for one of these, but refuses to say which.