Few artists can claim to have the cult status of Nick Drake. Dead at the age of twenty-six from an overdose of anti-depressants (which some say was accidental), in his brief tenure of existence he left behind only three albums. Five Leaves Left is the first of his triptych, and more than forty years after its inception remains a near masterpiece of English folk-rock at its bucolic best.
The album opens with the plaintive “Time Has Told Me”, a quaint country-tinged number, with Richard Thompson (who plays on most tracks) adding subtle and tasteful licks, and on which you’ll hear some of the most exquisite poetry ever put to vinyl. Here he sings “You came with the dawn/A soul with no footprint/A rose with no thorn”. And a little further on “You’re a rare rare find/A troubled cure/For a troubled mind”. Is Drake referring here to a loved one, or do the lyrics express a wider purpose of meaning? Without the original composer to enlighten us, we are left to decide its significance for ourselves.
Next is the mystifying and hypnotic “River Man”. The Baroque string arrangements complement and enhance the already esoteric nature of the tune. What this narrative is ultimately about I’m sure would have had even the likes of T.S. Eliot rubbing his temple. So wondrously depressing, as a composition it remains an unsolved piece of impenetrable beauty.
“Three Hours” follows, one of the rare and clearly autobiographical narratives scholars have been able to identify concerning an actual experience in Drake’s life. Some of his best playing can be heard on this song, which is loaded with atmosphere throughout.
If listeners thought “River Man” was maudlin, “Way to Blue” must have had them reaching for the nearest razor blade. Opening with a Baroque concerto, Drake sings “Tell us what you find/We will wait/At your gate/Hoping like the blind”. The whole thing is pretty bleak from start to finish, and like moths to the flame, I’m sure there are plenty of manic depressives out there who are drawn to this very song trying to find their own way through the oppressive fog of mental illness. In other words, I’d think twice before playing this to any one experiencing psycho-analysis.
“Day is Done” is another existential piece dominated by melancholy strings and of course Drake’s mesmerising guitar and vocals.
“Cello Song” was the first composition of his I ever heard, and almost instantly I was hooked. The combination of Nick’s guitar and voice drew me in straight away. Having read a lot of 17th century metaphysical poetry likely had something to do with my immediate attraction as well as fascination with that mysterious and morbid world in which he inhabited.
I used think that “The Thoughts of Mary Jane” was a reference to a real person, maybe even a lover perhaps, but I was also aware that that particular term was a euphemism for marijuana. So, having “The” at the beginning of the title alters any potential for interpretation considerably. Whether it is an ode to a real person or not, it remains an extremely pleasant tune all the same.
“Man in a Shed” is a little more on the cheerful even spritely side, musically at least. Not something Drake is normally associated with.
The words to “Fruit Tree” are as compelling as they are prophetic. And prove that Drake was once and for all a poet of the finest calibre. Jim Morrison knew how to pen a clever word or two, but when it came to actual poetry, at least in terms of what I consider to be more in the English tradition, academically speaking, Nick was far more refined and reflective. What may have been to him a simple observation appears now as his very own “Anthem for Doomed Youth”.
“Saturday Sun” ends things on a thoughtful and autumnal note. Nick tinkles on the piano while Tristam Fry adds some tasteful vibraphone (he also plays drums). It brings the album to a philosophical close, leaving the listener with more questions than answers. But that’s part of the mystique, like all things in this world which we don’t understand, sometimes even ourselves. But unfortunately there’s no Rosetta Stone that allows us to explain the mysteries of Nick’s language and meaning. All we have is what he chose to give to the world, and for that alone we should be thankful.