When Fruit Tree, the box set containing the three LPs songwriter Nick Drake issued during his lifetime, first appeared in 1979, five years after his death, it was one of the first box set retrospectives -- if not the first -- released on a contemporary artist. His three albums, Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, and Pink Moon, were completely ignored by the marketplace at the time of their respective releases. Joe Boyd, Drake's friend, producer, A&R man, and patron, felt that word about Drake had spread in the ensuing years after his death from the folk community to a new group of punters who were picking up the LPs in bigger numbers. (When Boyd sold his Witchseason Productions imprint to Island in 1972, one of the conditions was that Drake's recordings never be allowed to go out of print.) The set came with a beautiful book with great notes and the complete lyrics. Fruit Tree underwent a previous reissue on compact disc, with a bonus disc of rarities called Time of No Reply that included four more songs Drake recorded after 1972's Pink Moon for a new album -- according to Boyd -- and other rarities. In 2000, after the release of a Volkswagen commercial that featured the song "Pink Moon," Drake was discovered again by an entirely new generation of kids hungry for that lean and lonely sound. Universal, which owned Island by this time, remastered and re-released all three studio recordings. In 2004, Made to Love Magic, a single-disc set that was full of remixes and rarities such as the four cuts from Time of No Reply, hit the streets with one bonus. A new song, "Too Low," from the very same recording sessions that produced the other four, had been discovered by engineer John Wood on the original master tape. Made to Love Magic was thus a bittersweet purchase for Drake collectors who had virtually everything else here except that one song.
Which brings listeners to the incarnation of Fruit Tree released at the close of 2007. Included in the box are the original three albums in mini LP-like cover sleeves (two of which are gatefolds). Also included is A Skin Too Few, a 48-minute documentary that contains on-camera interviews with Boyd, Gabrielle Drake (Nick's sister), Wood, Paul Weller, Nick's parents (who are not shown on camera), and a few others. The documentary offers few new clues but there are some devastatingly beautiful moments. His sister reads a poem written by his mother; there is a recording of a song by his mother written for him during his adolescence -- and it is eerie how the same melancholy is in her own voice and spare piano chords. There is a moment when his father discusses how he felt helpless and that he'd failed when Drake refused the offer of a "safety net" early on; the breath he takes at the end of the sentence offers all of the emotion there is in this world when discussing the life and loss of his son. Their own candid comments on what he was like at the end of his life are not so much revelatory, but deeply moving. Gabrielle Drake, however, is full of insight, charm, kindness, and generosity. She is still very proud of her brother. There is a moment when it almost slips away for her, but she gets it back quickly. Shots of Tanworth-in-Arden with Drake's music playing the backdrop, demo recordings, and a final moment with a tape recorder are all moving because in one sense the context they present the music in may be no less mysterious in origin, but it offers something far greater than listeners ever got on their own. There is also a load of new liner notes, including roundtables with Boyd, Wood, and Robert Kirby, the man who orchestrated many of Drake's songs on each album. A journalist and musician named Robin Frederick, who knew and played with Drake, is also present here. All the lyrics are included, and an entirely new introductory essay on the change in studios and recording techniques by Martin "Cally" Calliman is included as well.
But there is a troubling thing about this Fruit Tree: it contains none of the bonus material -- the five known later studio recordings are absent here. It's easy enough to argue for leaving off the demos and remixes, but to leave off these five cuts is strange and controversial, if not unforgivable. Economics may be the reason -- in other words, those who already bought Made to Love Magic shouldn't be made to buy it again. OK, fair enough, but what about all those who had bought the three original albums on CD either before or after their original remaster in 2000? Boyd himself -- well known to be quite protective about the quality of material that gets released by his artists (he's been this way regarding the legacy of the late Sandy Denny as well) -- acknowledges the quality of this material (while Wood apparently disagrees), so what gives? One thing that is universally agreed upon is that the box should exist in some kind of definitive way, and it has been lovingly assembled with everything getting the grand treatment, aside from the glaring omission of those five cuts. No matter which of his three albums is a personal favorite, the quality of the music is the one thing that cannot be argued here -- it will simply continue to endure and grow in terms of its legend and importance, enlightening and engaging new listeners as they encounter it in the 21st century. ~ Thom Jurek