Nick Drake – Bryter Layter
Like many great artists, poets, musicians and writers, Nick Drake only achieved the fame and recognition he desired after his untimely death. In a cruel case of life imitating art the lyrics to Fruit Tree, from his 1968 debut album Five Leaves Left, seemed more prescient than ever as he sang “No-one knows you but the rain and the air/Don’t you worry, they’ll stand and stare/When you’re gone.” When his short life ended in 1974, Drake had been crippled by depression after what he perceived to be his failure to reach an audience, and with only a few thousand records sold he retreated inwardly.
The catalyst for Drake’s sense of resignation and despair were the poor sales figures for his second album, Bryter Layter; this was his most fully realised attempt to produce a genuine commercial record, and displayed a notable change in sound from the restrained, gentle Five Leaves Left. Drake’s record company backed his ambition, and musical support was supplied in the form of folk-rock group Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks and Richard Thompson, with The Velvet Underground’s John Cale appearing on two tracks to provide organ and harpsichord, amongst other things. In addition to this expanded line-up of talented musicians, Drake’s Cambridge University friend Robert Kirby provided arrangements for strings and brass on almost every track, and the overall result was an album with a much more accessible, ‘pop’ sound. As always, Drake’s remarkable guitar playing underpins every song, with his strong finger-picking style evident throughout, and his soft, breathy voice sounding clearer and more confident than ever before on his most overtly catchy set of songs. The characteristic pastoral sound of Bryter Layter, however, is due in large part to Kirby’s stunning string arrangements, as they perfectly counterbalance Drake’s guitar and backing group with lush extra layers of melody without ever overpowering the songs themselves. Nowhere else is this contrast better demonstrated than on Hazy Jane I, as forcefully picked guitar gives way to graceful, sweeping strings which add grandeur and tangible emotional depth.
Three of the album’s ten tracks are instrumentals, and it is the music which does the bulk of the work in charming the listener here – so much so that it is easy to miss some of Drake’s most unsettling lyrics up to that point. Although his life was yet to take the unfortunate downturn which would eventually catch him there is still a notable pessimism in many of the words on offer, and in the wider context of his eventual fate it is possible to discern the seeds of the depression which would ultimately blight his future. Even the first words sung on the album, in fact, suggest a distinct forboding on his part, as he begins Hazy Jane II with the question “What will happen in the morning/when the world it gets so crowded that you can’t look out the window in the morning?” Drake’s positivity and sense of calm wins out, however, as later he urges himself to “take a little while to grow your brother’s hair/Now, take a little while to make your sister fair”. The impression of a duel of personalities between the Nick Drake who strives to be positive and the Nick Drake who won’t let him is present throughout the set, as on Hazy Jane I where some disturbing verses are once more followed by the singer checking himself on the chorus (“Hey, slow, Jane, make sense”), and the juxtaposition of playful piano and melody on One of These Things First with what is ostensibly a list of objects he’d sooner be than the man he is. The undoubted sense of unease reaches a clear pinnacle on the melancholy Fly, as Cale supplies mournful viola and harpsichord whilst Drake begs and pleads “I’ve fallen so far for the people you are/I just need your star for a day”, and the listener gets a clear glimpse at the tragic figure the artist will become. It is left, though, to arguably Nick Drake’s strongest candidate for a single to have the last word on the album; the shimmering, gorgeous Northern Sky sees a renewed positivity win out in the form of a fragile, vulnerable and honest love song, as a sumptuous piano and organ raise the song to lofty heights. What makes it all the more remarkable is the fact that a man of so few words in his personal life can express himself so vividly and with such painful candour when projecting himself through song, and Northern Sky is without parallel in this distinction.
Despite his hopes, his second album did not prove to be the commercial breakthrough for Nick Drake, and his increasing discomfort and reluctance to tour the album or give press interviews further compounded its lack of impact. Embittered by the failure and wracked with disillusionment, he would make one further album – the stark, brooding Pink Moon in 1971 – before his death. His music was rediscovered in the following decade, however, and succeeding generations have discovered his back catalogue and its wonderous gem, Bryter Layter.
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