I’m certainly no Nick Drake obsessive. I haven’t read every biography, I don’t subscribe to any fanzines, nor do I light a candle and play his records on the anniversary of his death. But I have been listening to his music for a long time, so long in fact that each song has become like an old friend, with whom experiences have been shared. The only difference is that one of us continues to grow older, while the other remains unchanged. And so it is today, even when Drake was alive, he will always be with us, though never really of us.
Friend and producer Joe Boyd was determined that Drake’s next album would be a success. Five Leaves Left had sold around five thousand copies, a respectable number, especially for an artist as difficult to market as Nick, but Boyd felt he deserved more. Such was his unwavering belief in him as a potential major talent, certainly in the same league as John Martin, Sandy Denny, Fairport Convention etc.
The album starts off with the extremely bright and sun-drenched “Introduction”, an instrumental where Robert Kirby’s string arrangement dominates, and which sees Drake take more of a back seat.
The ever versatile Richard Thompson plays lead guitar (Nick never played electric) on “Hazey Jane II”. Interestingly there is a “Hazey Jane I”, but this track closes the first side, instead of preceding the version here. One of the fastest numbers he ever recorded, and one I feel would have made an appropriate choice as first single.
“At the Chime of a City Clock” has more of those lovely strings courtesy of Kirby, as well as tasteful sax by Ray Warleigh, and is a fine example of where pop, folk and poetical observation can successfully combine and complement each other to form into something at once enigmatic, strange and timeless.
“One of These Things First’ has more of that exquisite and unusual finger picking, around which Paul Harris plays some spritely piano, sprinkling notes underneath Nick’s understated vocals. Here we find him pondering over the many alternatives there are in life, both animate and inanimate
Many years ago “Hazey Jane I” meant a great deal to me. Wondering where my life and the relationship I was in at the time were heading. Many of these reflections and realities I felt were being expressed through various passages of Drake’s verse, and which contained within it an element of pathos and humanity that I feel only those who have experienced profound melancholia can understand and adequately appreciate.
The title track opens side two, and is lovely but has an elevator style quality about it which I find slightly off-putting, even by Drake’s lofty standards.
John Cale first heard Nick’s music while Joe Boyd was playing back Five Leaves Left in the studio, and declared there and then that he wanted to work with him. He got his wish. On “Fly” he plays viola and harpsichord, revealing that his musical skills and versatility were far greater than first shown with the Velvet Underground. Gone are the atonal experimentalisms of his Factory days. Cale was classically trained, and his contributions here are first class.
“Poor Boy” is built around a bossa nova rhythm with some superb gospel style vocals by Pat Arnold and Doris Troy. Probably the only example we have of Drake in self-mock mode. This is undoubtedly one of the most unique and enjoyable folk/rock songs I’ve ever heard.
“Northern Sky” is simply perfect in almost every way. John Cale once again contributes his not inconsiderable talents with celeste, piano, and organ. Nick’s guitar and vocals immediately evoke the image of a few sun beams piercing through a dull gray skyline, while you feel your depression lift and float away, at least for a few minutes.
Five Leaves Left ended with “Saturday Sun”, a sentimental longing for days gone by. And so Bryter Layter finishes with “Sunday”, a voiceless excursion with some attractive flute which is at once uplifting and depressing both in the same instance, as if to remind the listener of the finite quality of his/her own existence, and how all things must eventually come to an end, even a Nick Drake album.
As was the case with Drake’s debut, Bryter Layter failed to sell, at least in the quantities Boyd had hoped. Not helping matters was the singer-songwriter himself, who preferred anchoritic seclusion, and who also refused to tour or promote the album in any practicable way. In the age of Youtube, and online music sites, this wouldn’t have presented much of a problem, although in Nick’s day, one had to perform, and often, if one had any hope of people ever hearing their music. Boyd did everything he could, but without his fragile artist’s willingness to hit the road and embrace an audience, it too seemed destined for relative obscurity. And so it was that Nick spiralled further down the staircase of depression. Yet imagine the surprise of Island when he presented to them his next album the following year, the austere and desolate Pink Moon.