I'd long known that Nick Drake had died really young, but it's only very recently that I realised he had recorded Bryter Later and Five Leaves Left before his 21st birthday. This pushed me to revisit his three main albums. I'm not really a big consumer of musician biographies or biographies in general*, so I just know the basic Nick Drake facts. Still, I am amazed that a 20 year old could express the darkness and distress (as well as a few breezy trifles) he did without sounding fake or boringly shoegazing.
The opinion that Bryter Later is equal to or better than Five Leaves Left seems to be fairly widespread. I can't understand that. While suggesting that Drake wasn't all doom and gloom, his second album is much less of a satisfying experience than his debut or the trilogy-closing Pink Moon: his voice is placed in competition with the music and has no chance of winning.
The relationship between lyrics, voice and music feels much more distant, anonymous even: I mean, bossa-nova on "Poor Boy"? I'm a big fan of Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, but what does his solo here bring to the song? The decidedly non-maternal female chorus of "Oh poor boy/So sorry for himself/Oh poor boy/So worried for his health" is tragically comic, but still. The peppy trumpets and upbeat, trouble-free beat on "Hazey Jane II": why? "Peppy" and "trouble-free" are the last words I'd think of when describing Drake. Having alto saxophonist Ray Warleigh improvise through "At The Chime Of A City Clock" is a pretty good idea, but the contrast between his sure-footed, professional lightness and Drake's sophisticated confessions is stark. What does Warleigh's carefully controlled cries have to do with lines like "For the sound of a busy place/Is fine for a pretty face/Who knows what a face is for"? The rhythmically interesting descending vocal line of the first few verses of "Hazy Jane II" is hurried and nearly drowned out by the accompaniment, which also diminishes the effect of the implicit frustration of the ending ("If songs were lines/In a conversation/The situation would be fine").
It is only on the moving "Fly," where Drake yelping "Please!" is foregrounded, or "Northern Sky," with John Cale's distilled keyboards (interestingly, far more appropriate than McGregor's more rough-hewn style), that the natural unity of the debut album is recaptured. Also, compare the easy, professional prettiness of Bryter Later's instrumental tracks to Pink Moon's stark, almost motionless "Horn."
Ultimately, Bryter Later sounds like producer Joe Boyd's album more than it does Drake's: the bigger cast, the obviously bigger budget. It's notable that the Drake-only Pink Moon is much closer to Five Leaves Left than to Bryter Later (all three were produced by Boyd, though). Or maybe the singer decided to take a radically different approach. Or maybe the problem is that I know absolutely nothing of the likes of Fairport Convention.
Perhaps the ternary and open-ended rhythms frequently found on Five Leaves Left and Pink Moon are more adapted to Drake's slowness than binary grooves. Just the way he exhales the word "cure" in "Time Has Told Me" - voice high in the mix, with plenty of time to drag - would have been impossible, or at least impossible to fully appreciate, in Bryter Later's overstuffed context.
"Time Has Told Me" opens an incredibly strong A side. It's thematically-unified, stressing the difficulty to communicate and transmit information between individuals and the "ban on feeling free" imposed by society. In every song, the dark and stripped-down context is tailored to convey Drake's meanings. For example, the rhythmic propulsion of "Three Hours" supports rather than overwhelms or hurries, underscoring the escapes Drake sings of.
"River Man" is quite simply extraordinary on all levels. Its lyrics contrast the eternal and deeply hidden (the titular figure makes me think of Charon, the character from Greek mythology who ferried souls across the Styx river) with the air-headed but somehow enviable Betty, while Drake is again engaged in a doomed quest for knowledge. Robert Kirby's string arrangement on "Way To Blue" magnifies every chord change and finds a moving resonance between Drake's voice and the low-register strings (the double basses?) at the end of certain lines.** On this song as on several others, the music ends abruptly, as soon as the lyrics do, as if nothing could exist outside of them and perhaps recalling that Drake had enough trouble dealing with everything inside his own head to deal with anything outside of it.
On the B side, Drake falls back to earth, and it's almost reassuring. For example, "Man In A Shed," despite the fairly clever self-commentary in the last verse, is pretty much what I would expect a bright, lovelorn teenager to write. "'Cello Song" sinks under the weight of an inflexible conga beat and singing that's a little too evanescent. The flute on "The Thoughts Of Mary Jane" makes a sweet song a little too sweet. Even on this lighter song, the singer remains an observer, unable to fully share in the expression of everyday happiness. That A side, though, is something else, of incredible depth and power.
The photography in the album's booklet show a Romantic Drake, detached from the daily hustle and bustle. The most striking portrait, though, is one of him seated at a table, almost entirely consumed by impenetrable shadows. Only the left side of his face and his right hand are visible, implying that only this small part of him - the one that writes lyrics and plays the guitar - are left to interact with the outside world. Indeed, considering the poetic frailty exposed in his voice and words, his guitar playing is surprisingly competent and ambitious. Perhaps this hints at the troubled mix of strength and weakness necessary to Drake's art.
* There was a time, long ago, when I read a lot of biographies of basketball players. Of those, Bill Russell's Go Up For Glory made the most vivid impression: imagine not only being a smart, outspoken and headstrong black athlete in the whitest town in America, but also being undeniable because you were key in building the greatest NBA dynasty of all time.
** Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that Brad Mehldau has Larry Grenadier play the melody and first solo on his cover of "Day Is Done" on the album of the same name (though, overall, his forceful, beat-driven interpretation is closer to the mood of Bryter Later). Mehldau's second-encore rendition of "River Man" in Antwerpen three years ago nearly had me in tears. It's an inappropriate place, but I can't help but profess my undying admiration for the way Mehldau plays certain chords under the melody of "Knives Out" on Day Is Done: Individual notes are staggered yet joined in a way that makes the whole seem melted, gone almost before it has time to coalesce.