One day in my late teens I spontaneously picked up a copy of Q Magazine from my local WH Smith. Informative, witty and covering a varied array of artists, it wasn’t long before I declared myself a loyal reader. Their excellent feature pieces brought me fascinating stories behind the music, while the extensive album reviews section sparked my initial interest in the art of reviewing. ‘‘Oh I don’t read reviews, I like to make up my own mind!’’ said many a hipster over the years. As if the consumption of such articles equals an internal need to be told what’s good and what’s not. Well, maybe that’s how it is for some people. But I just love the process of burying myself in music appreciation, then seeing how it relates to my own experience.
Q has also had a helping hand in some of my greatest musical discoveries. It was their unwavering admiration of then little known songsmith Nick Drake that nudged me in the direction of his 1969 debut Five Leaves Left. So enchanted was I by its raw beauty that a few days later I ran back to my local record store to mop up his remaining two studio efforts, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon.
Musically I’ve always been drawn to tragic figures and lost souls and Nick Drake has to be one of the most tragic, lost souls there ever was. A gentle, shy, soft-spoken young man possessed of a profound deep-seated agoraphobia, his haunting debut album passed largely unnoticed, a situation that left Nick feeling especially despondent and misunderstood.
As such, when he began work on his second album Bryter Later in the autumn of 1970, Drake felt a different approach was needed. He wanted to make an upbeat record, one with a fuller and more commercial sound. With this in mind a whole host of collaborators were brought in, including former Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale and various members of folk royalty Fairport Convention. While everyone came together with the best of intentions, the recording process turned out to be anything but smooth. Unused to working alongside others, Nick proved largely uncommunicative, saying very little to his fellow musicians with whom he would even avoid eye contact!
Ultimately Nick was unsure about the finished product, wondering if the record contained too many personalities, was perhaps overproduced, the string sections maybe too aggressive. He also suspected the positive atmosphere of the music, married with his often anxious and desperate lyrics, created a discord that rendered the album flawed. But for me this juxtaposition is what makes Bryter Layter such a gripping record. Wordless opener Introduction transports the listener to the rolling countryside of North England, its soaring strings evoking images of an early morning walk through the woods, bars of light streaking through the branches from the rising sun.
This decidedly hopeful vibe carries into the breezy Hazey Jane II, by far the most cheerful track Drake ever laid down. With his pristine strumming and feather-light vocals, he speaks of a girl who’s ‘‘back again in my mind’’. But it seems Nick is unable to tell her how he feels, concluding that ‘‘if songs were lines in a conversation, the situation would be fine’’.
With a creeping sense of doubt having set in, there’s an altogether more brooding feel to At the Chime of a City Clock, its light, saxophone-meandering bossanova at odds with the words of a man lost and out of place in the big smoke of London. It paints a picture of a solitary figure who can only ‘‘stay indoors, beneath the floors, talk with neighbours only’’.
Time and time again Nick’s music presents a man completely out of synch with place and time, uncomfortable in his own skin. And so it is on One of These Things First, where he reflects on how he ‘‘Could have been a sailor, could have been a cook’’ over a tinkling piano. Or on the oh so forlorn Hazey Jane I where he asks ‘‘Do you curse where you come from? Do you swear in the night? Do you feel like a remnant of something that’s past?’’
Musical interlude Bryter Later disrupts the record’s flow somewhat, its syrupy strings edging dangerously close to elevator muzak, conjuring up images of idyllic Disney animals frolicking around in a technicolor forest. It’s pretty enough, but I’ve always thought of it as inessential in terms of the record’s otherwise excellent flow.
It’s something of a relief then when the excellent Fly comes to the rescue with its swooping viola and harpsichord. Taking a trip out to the seaside with a certain special someone, Nick expresses a fervent wish for a makeover of the soul, a fresh start. ‘‘Please, give me a second face, I’ve fallen far down the first time around’’.
Then comes the opinion-splitting jazz-meets-gospel of Poor Boy, a dose of deep disillusionment swamped by an upbeat arrangement and powerful backing vocals. Lamenting how ‘‘Nobody cares how steep my stairs and nobody smiles if I cross their styles’’, Drake skilfully saves the song from disappearing down a sickly black hole of self-pity with session singers Pat (PP Arnold) and Doris Troy’s mocking backing vocals. ‘‘A poor boy… so sorry for himself!’’.
But while Poor Boy might very well be a case of musical Marmite, there’s surely no doubting the genius of Northern Sky; arguably the greatest achievement of Nick Drake’s all-too-brief twenty six years. With a forcefully beautiful mix of celeste, piano, Hammond organ and Robert Kirby’s perfectly balanced arrangement, it’s the closest he ever came to sounding truly happy, or at the very least at peace with himself. ‘‘I never felt magic as crazy as this’’ he confides, but the line ultimately feels tragic when you know such happiness was only fleeting and wasn’t enough to save Nick from himself. It’s impossible for me to listen to this song without feeling a lump in my throat.
Finally then there’s Sunday, one last flute-laden musical piece that serves as a sad farewell, bringing the album to a pretty, understated finish.
Set free to the world on November the 1st 1970, there were clearly high hopes from all concerned. But sadly for Nick, Island Records made an unforgiveable pig’s ear of promoting it. It also came out at a time when the musical landscape was shifting in favour of grizzled rock and the emergence of bands like Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. And yet it was Nick himself who put the final nail in Layter’s coffin by refusing to tour or publicise it, so embittered had he become with his career and indeed life in general. Selling less than five thousand copies, it wouldn’t reach a wider audience until years after his death.
When I began writing up my album reviews I instantly knew I wanted to do something on Nick Drake. Choosing which album would get the nod though was no walk in the park. With an intense love for all three records, I went for Bryter Layter on the basis that it contains some of his most hopeful material. Songs that, sad as they are, make me smile the most. It’s a record that reveals a man capable of genuine optimism, of finding light and somehow using it to pick a makeshift path through the darkness. It’s also the LP that contains my two favourite Nick Drake songs, Hazey Jane II and Northern Sky. While it’s admittedly not a work in which you’ll find much humour, Drake did showcase some playfulness in the naming of the album. Inspired by a familiar phrase from TV and radio weather broadcasts, he opted to give ‘‘brighter later’’ an olde worlde style spelling as ‘‘a bit of a joke’’.
Choice Quote: ‘‘Was it the vocals? Was it the lyrics? Was it the orchestration?”. Nick Drake in conversation with arranger Robert Kirby following the album’s commercial failure.
Choice Lyric: ‘‘Do you like what you’re doing? Would you do it some more? Or will you stop once and wonder, what you’re doing it for?’’. – From Hazey Jane I.
Like this? For the last word on Nick’s music and an in-depth look at his short, tragic life, look no further than the excellent biography Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake by Trevor Dann.
For more of my musical musings have a leaf through my other album reviews.