Five Leaves Left / Bryter Layter / Pink Moon /
Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake
First Appeared at The Music Box, August 2003, Volume 10, #8
Written by John Metzger
Nick Drake passed away in 1974 after releasing just three albums. Though each was a gem, Drake never achieved the level of success that he deserved or desired. Even a new generation of musicians, including Sondre Lerche, Belle & Sebastian, and Duncan Sheik, have failed to draw attention to Drake’s music, leaving it to an artist’s nightmare — a television commercial — to do the deed. No matter, at least the task was accomplished, prompting Drake’s masterful catalog to be digitally remastered and reissued — his three albums and a best-of compilation were released in May, while a rarities collection and a box set Fruit Tree, which contains everything he ever recorded, will be re-released within the next year. In any event, perhaps now, in hindsight, Drake’s albums will be recognized for the brilliance contained therein.
Originally issued in 1969, Drake’s Five Leaves Left was as promising a debut as any. Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson — who discovered Drake and introduced him to producer Joe Boyd — adds country-tinged electric guitar to the opening Time Has Told Me, but it’s Drake’s poetic lyrics and sweetly sorrowful melodies that truly shine. His understated arrangements — much like those of Donovan — provide the perfect accompaniment for wispy vocals that soar dreamily above the delicate dance of acoustic guitar, congas, and strings. Time Has Told Me lends much to Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water, and there’s a bit of give-and-take between Drake, Pink Floyd, and David Crosby that floats throughout the album, too. The strings frequently borrow from The Beatles — most notably Eleanor Rigby — and they stream like gentle tears around the words that drift from Drake’s lips. Each track is a masterpiece meant for candlelit evenings spent alone in quiet reflection, and each song — be it the desperation of life outlined on Day Is Done or the hopeful ache contained within Cello Song’s softly rolling groove — is meant to be heard by those cloaked in darkness but searching for the light.
Drake’s 1970 follow-up Bryter Layter wasn’t quite as melancholic as Five Leaves Left, and for a moment, it seemed as if the poet had pulled himself out of his perpetually depressed state of mind. For this outing, Drake’s lyrics occasionally allow small rays of sunlight to gleam upon the surface of his songs, and this not only is upheld but also is amplified by the lighter air of the music, which once again was produced by Joe Boyd. Hazey Jane II — a song that has fueled much of Belle & Sebastian’s work, though the glorious swoon of Northern Sky runs a close second — is downright bubbly jazz-pop on which Richard Thompson reprises his complimentary country-tinged guitar role, while a smattering of Bacharachian horns twitters about the upbeat percussive groove. The sound of a string section lovingly floats above At the Chime of a City Clock as a saxophone soars through its center, and piano gracefully supports the yearning in One of These Things First. Though a hint of sadness is still present throughout Bryter Layter, this time it is cloaked within the cloudless hope for a better future, making the album Drake’s most accessible outing.
Unfortunately, neither of Drake’s first two albums sold very well, and following the release of Bryter Layter, the artist plunged into a horribly debilitating depression. He never cared all that much for performing live, preferring his reclusive lifestyle to anything remotely social, and by the time of Pink Moon’s recording, Drake truly was at the end of his rope, unable to walk, talk, write, or sing. Nevertheless, over the course of two nights, he managed to find the courage and the strength to piece together the eleven songs that became his final album. Oddly enough, the title track gained him the most attention when thirty years later it was utilized for the unlikely purpose of selling automobiles, especially given the entire effort was a dark excursion through the mind of a troubled soul. Accompanying himself on guitar and piano, Pink Moon was as stark and solitary as one could possibly get. Rather than be unlistenable fare, however, the suite is eerily compelling, containing song after song of both breathtaking beauty and haunted sorrow, its raw emotion and naked vulnerability laid bare against the calm resignation in Drake’s mellowed voice. It proved to be a fittingly prescient farewell — Drake would accidentally overdose on antidepressants a few years later, leaving behind a body of work that others would mine endlessly for clues that his death was actually a suicide. It doesn’t really matter how or why Drake died. His music was pure art, straight from his heart and mind with far more purity than most musicians could ever hope to muster.
The compilation Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake achieves exactly what its name implies, collecting 16 tracks from Drake’s 3 studio albums as well as his rarities set. While Way to Blue is wonderfully sequenced and provides a superb overview of his brilliant career, it’s a far better investment to purchase the complete releases. They truly are that good, standing quite well on their own merit and containing absolutely no filler.
Five Leaves Left —
Bryter Layter —
Pink Moon —
Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake —
Five Leaves Left is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
Bryter Layter is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
Pink Moon is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box