. Mark Kozelek. Elliott Smith. Mark Eitzel. Mojave3. The list goes on and on, for these are only a handful of current artists who are inevitably compared to, and were influenced by, English folkie Nick Drake. Sadly neglected in his time, (which played a large part in causing the severe depression that Nick constantly battled) but revered years too late, this debut album is incredibly sad and slow moving but is also beautiful beyond words. Occupying a middle ground between the even richer Bryter Layter and the sparse, almost unbearably bleak Pink Moon, Five Leaves Left provides an ideal starting point for discovering the music of Nick Drake (besides, you might as well start at the beginning, right?). Though his sighing, world weary voice is immediately identifiable, he also proves to be an excellent acoustic guitar picker on songs such as “Three Hours” and “Cello Song,” while the lush, baroque string arrangements provided by Harry Robinson (“River Man”) and Robert Kirby (“Day Is Done,” “Way To Blue,” “The Thoughts of Mary Jane,” “Fruit Tree”) add another layer of loveliness (a few songs effectively feature piano as well). Seemingly wise beyond his years, Drake’s lyrics are almost a match for his mournful music, as lines like “time will tell me, you’re a rare find, a troubled cure, for a troubled mind, and time will tell me, not to ask for more, for some day our ocean, will find its shore” have a poetic elegance that are even more impressive when you consider that he was only 20 years old when he made this album. Although he occasionally allows some levity (the charmingly sprightly “Man In A Shed” comes to mind), the vast majority of the time Drake addresses his sad state of mind with romantic lines like “so forget this cruel world where I belong, I’ll just sit and sing my song, and if one day you should see me in the crowd, lend a hand and lift me, to your place in the cloud.” Lines like “well there was a girl who lived nearby, whenever he saw her he could only sigh” also attest to Nick’s lack of confidence and feelings that life was passing him by, but all these years later it is “Fruit Tree” that is most prescient, as if Nick knew of his cruel commercial fate: “safe in your place deep in the earth, that’s when they’ll know what you were really worth.” This guy's music is priceless.
Bryter Layter (Island, Hannibal ’70) Rating: A+
Drake’s most musically fully fleshed out effort, this sophomore outing is the perfect soundtrack to a warm summer day (Five Leaves Left was more autumnal to me). Drake sounds relaxed and even upbeat on several songs, some of which (the almost jaunty “Hazy Jane II,” the reflective “One Of These Things First”) have a jazzy feel, while Robert Kirby’s lush string arrangements again add a luxuriant backdrop to Drake’s acoustic guitar-based songs. Some well placed piano, flute, horn, and saxophone touches (plus a gospel choir on the self-mocking “Poor Boy” and guest appearances by the likes of Richard Thompson and John Cale) further enrich the music, and the unique way the saxophones and strings weave around Drake’s hushed vocals on the mysterious “At The Chime Of A City Clock” underscores why Drake has become so (belatedly) popular with the alternative set. Sad but beautiful songs such as “Hazey Jane I,” “Fly,” and “Northern Sky” sound like timeless classics, while Drake’s world-weary regrets and tragically romantic worldview again belies his youthful age. Also, the lovely instrumental interludes (“Introduction,” “Bryter Layter,” and “Sunday”) only add to the album’s magical and dreamlike ambiance, while lines like “do you feel like a remnant of something past, do you find that things are moving just a little too fast” give intimate glimpses into the mind of a troubled young man who never fit in. He’s boosted by the wonders of the world, though, (“I never saw magic crazy as this”) and Bryter Layter ultimately uplifts by its fragile innocence and beauty. Not one to dole out accolades, producer Joe Boyd claimed that Bryter Layter was the only perfect album he ever worked on, and it's the single finest evidence available why this young man who died a relative unknown became a posthumous legend.
Pink Moon (Island/Hannibal ’72) Rating: A
Recorded alone over two nights with a lone acoustic guitar and occasional piano accompaniment, Pink Moon was recorded during a period when Drake was consumed by depression. As such, it’s an incredibly sad album whose bare emotions need no further support than these supremely sparse settings. To quote Arthur Lobow's liner notes to the Fruit Tree box set: "Pink Moon is the darkest and most difficult of his records. While the others (Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter) are lush and gorgeous, Pink Moon is spare and distant." Whereas Drake's earlier albums at least had musically (if not lyrically) upbeat moments, there’s little letup from despair on this ultra intense album, which also delivers beautifully haunting music, though lines like “now I’m weaker than the palest blue, oh so weak in this need for you” make me glad that the album is mercifully only a mere 28 minutes long (to quote engineer John Wood: "if something's that intense, it can't really be measured in minutes"). With nothing else to support him, Pink Moon further underscores what a great guitar player and singer Drake was, as many of these songs were cut in only one take. And though I'd argue that the album on the whole has slightly less memorable melodies than either Five Leaves Left or Bryter Layter, this album is less about individual songs and more about establishing an overall mood (though Bryter Layter in particular sustained a mood wonderfully as well). Ironically, amid the surrounding sadness, the album ends on a rare upbeat note: “a day once dawned; and it was beautiful.” So is this album, and though I typically prefer listening to his easier to swallow and more musically diverse first two albums, Pink Moon was another magnificent entry in the brief but brilliant career of Nick Drake (in fact many regard the album as his best work). Note: Drake was so shy that he recorded the album and left it with nary a word with his record company’s receptionist; it was only later that someone found the tape of Nick’s new album! Note #2: Almost 30 years later (1999 to be exact), the terrific title track was used in a Volkswagon commercial, giving Drake the visibility that had long eluded him. He subsequently was listed on amazon.com's bestseller list; overnight success had finally arrived! Note #3: Over a decade later (2010 to be exact), the also-fantastic finale “From The Morning” was used to excellent effect in an AT&T commercial.
Time Of No Reply (Island/Hannibal '86) Rating: B+
The album cover claims that the posthumously released Time Of No Reply contains "10 previously unreleased tracks, including 7 completely new songs, plus the 4 'last session' tracks" that were recorded in 1974. Rather than being mere bottom of the barrel scrapings, this clearing of the vaults more often than not simply offers songs that Nick had recorded but chosen not to release during his brief recording career. The fact that some of these songs had been forgotten and were almost lost to time (in some instances saved by a lucky tape retrieval) merely makes Time Of No Reply all the more special. That said, this album is obviously not the place to start with Nick Drake, and is more for fans who’ve already come under his spell (i.e. anyone who’s ever heard any of his other albums). Interestingly enough, some of his earliest songs (“Time Of No Reply,” “Clothes Of Sand”) have more in common with the stark simplicity of Pink Moon than Five Leaves Left, even though they were recorded during sessions for the latter, while “I Was Made To Love Magic” is the only song here with any orchestration. True, some of these songs are unremarkable by his standards, but I never tire of “Fly” and “The Thoughts of Mary Jane,” and these stripped down alternate takes give the originals a run for their money. In addition, primitive home recordings such as "Been Smoking Too Long" and "Strange Meeting II," and emotionally agitated later songs such as “Black Eyed Dog” and “Hanging On A Star” are absolutely necessary in completing the musical picture painted by the enigmatic young loner that was Nick Drake.
Fruit Tree (Island/Hannibal ) Rating: A+
Remember when I said that Five Leaves Left provides an ideal starting point for discovering the music of Nick Drake? Well, the truth is that once you've heard one Nick Drake album chances are you’ll want to own them all, so you might as well start and end right here. Beautifully packaged with the care and thought that Nick Drake’s music deserved, the Fruit Tree box set includes all three studio albums released during Drake’s lifetime (Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, Pink Moon) as well as the posthumously released Time Of No Reply. As an added bonus, the booklet includes Arthur Lubow's highly illuminating look into the life of the highly troubled young man, as well as lyrics to each song. Begin with Five Leaves Left, continue with Bryter Layter, and then finish with Pink Moon and Time Of No Reply, respectively; it truly is the only way to get the entire artistic story of a young man who left the world far too soon. Note: Drake died of an apparent overdose of an anti-depressant. However, considering that he died during a rare time of happiness (according to those who knew him best), there seems to be some debate over whether his death was a suicide or not. Note #2: When producer/record company entrepreneur Joe Boyd sold his record label he sold it with the stipulation that Nick Drake’s work was never to go out of print. A man of excellent taste who helped discover and then nurture Nick's talent, Boyd was acutely aware that timeless music deserves to endure forever.
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