NICK DRAKE LEAVES
Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:21 January 2021
Nick Drake had precious little success during his brief lifetime. None of his three albums reached the wider audience he hoped for and his descent into depression made isolation his preferred state. Drake did not perform his music live, had acquaintances rather than friends, made little conversation and had no intimacy other than a tortured communion with his own mind. So how is it that his second album, 1970’s Bryter Layter, radiates a melancholy beauty and melodic richness that has made it an enduring favourite?
Part of the answer lies in the way Bryter Layter eludes easy categorisation. It is not really folk, neither is it rock. Yes, Drake sings and writes songs, but the LP does not feel like a singer-songwriter record. It’s more like a poet shyly showing you an exercise book of neatly written lines, illustrated with water colour images evoking both pastoral beauty and inevitable loss.
But before we get overly Romantic, let’s listen to the music. Because what Bryter Layter offers is a rich collection of songs (and some instrumentals) that somehow manage to glow like the darling buds of May while ever reminding us of Autumn’s fading colours. (We’re in the Northern Hemisphere, of course; Nick Drake was very English indeed).
The LP opens with a brief instrumental flowing around Drake’s cascading guitar lines. The rhythm section of Fairport Convention members Dave Pegg (bass) and Dave Mattacks (drums) is limber and sensitive. Robert Kirby’s orchestrations are immediately noticeable for those whose Nick Drake journey started with the more spacious Five Leaves Left. Personally, I’m not entirely sure about the brass, but otherwise the arrangements certainly counterbalance the introversion of the songs themselves. “Hazey Jane II” almost rocks, aided by Richard Thompson’s guitar. “At the chime of a city clock” has Drake’s observations of London, where he moved to be closer to the music scene. How did that go? Here’s a couplet from the song:
Stay indoors, beneath the floors
Talk with neighbours only
So not exactly a party animal, despite the chirpy saxophone decorating the song.
A variety of musical textures is what gives Bryter Layter its enduring charm. In his wonderful book “Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music”, Rob Young observes that the album is “a curious concoction of fluid, jazz-tinged folk-rock — melancholy with a desperate edge”. In “One of these things first”, Nick wonders about the things he could have been. The feel of a restless, homeless poet feel pervades many of the songs; he’s curious but separate.
The album’s epilogue is “Sunday”, a pretty, flute-driven instrumental. But just before that is the lovely, reflective “Northern Sky”. Graced by John Cale’s layered keyboard parts, this song somehow manages to be downbeat and—dare we say it?—hopeful.
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky
As we continue to marvel at Nick Drake’s singular talent almost five decades after his death, as the accolades he both desired and shunned continue to accumulate across time, as his reputation continues to grow, perhaps it was indeed a case of Bryter Layter. Though not for Nick.
© Bruce Jenkins 2021