Nick Drake - Bryter Layter
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
An acoustic guitar - finger-picked gently - is followed by sweet, soaring strings whilst a beautifully smooth bass makes an effortless slide past octave point. “I like this”. My dad’s work colleague sits back in the passenger seat, taken aback by the choice of music provided by myself for his and my father’s journey to give lord-knows-what presentation to lord-knows-how-many like-minded (but ultimately inferior) civil servants, in lord-knows-what town. “I this”, he enthuses, and he is hooked. My third this year. Within days, he’s bought all three Drake records, and is even talking about the “mysterious” home recordings that surfaced on bootlegs several years ago.
Nick Drake was an obscure British folk artist, who recorded three albums for Island Music between 1969 and 1974. Having played just two-dozen gigs in his lifetime (owing to extreme bouts of nervousness and depression) and selling pitifully few records (owing to lack of exposure: see above), Drake died in his sleep at the age of 26, victim of an overdose of sleeping pills which may or may not have been accidental (too complicated to go into here: read the book).
It is Drake’s second album, Bryter Layter, which I played in the car that day and which opens with the tender beauty of “Introduction”, soon giving way to the summery brass of “Hazey Jane II”. With a much bolder arrangement than anything on his debut, Five Leaves Left, “Hazey Jane II” led one friend of mine to compare it (with considerable exaggeration) to Dylan going electric. Evidently though, this was a marked departure from the introspective understatement of Five Leaves Left, with reasons for this shift being touched upon lyrically within the fragmentary “At The Chime Of A City Clock”.
Supplementing Drake’s cityscape tale is soulful alto sax, whilst the only real comparison to Bob Dylan could be in the way in which the two reacted to their new cosmopolitan homes, and the observations that could be made there. New York provided Dylan with the humorous stories and hippy politics of 1963’s The Freewheelin’… while London seemed only to alienate Nick Drake further: “A city star/won't shine too far/On account of the way you are”. All this combined with the photograph of Nick Drake by a motorway on the inner sleeve, the change was particularly clear to friends; as one so pointedly summarised, “First album - Man In Shed. Second album - Man In London”.
Some critics, (including Drake biographer Patrick Humphries) have condemned the three instrumentals featured on Bryter Layter as “too easy listening”. Currently unfamiliar with the complex world of folk snobbery, I’m not entirely sure how a piece of music can be “too” anything as long as it pleases, particularly when it could be argued by purists that much of Drake’s work isn’t folk enough. While there is no onslaught in Bryter Layter that the listener would need downtime from, the harmless melody of the title track bridges the gap between the raw emotion of “Fly” and the self-effacing black humour of lengthy jazz-waltz “Poor Boy”.
“Poor Boy” is the album’s most introspective moment, and Drake knew it. So alongside his wry, lonesome soliloquy (“Nobody cares/How steep my stairs/Nobody smiles/If I cross my styles”) is PP Arnold’s almost sarcastic refrain: “Oh poor boy/So sorry for himself/Oh poor boy/So worried for his health”.
Having found no solace in London, Nick returned to his home in Tamworth-in-Arden, near Stratford. While hardly a northerly town, we can only presume this was the inspiration for one of his best songs, “Northern Sky”. Claiming to have “never felt magic crazy as this”, Drake is at his most enchanting, as he wistfully begs for a lover’s unflinching commitment. The song is a proposal, a question, and Nick Drake remains ambiguous to the last. Where the listener would very much like to know the lover’s response, we are faced instead with the instrumental “Sunday”. This only serves to elongate his question, with melancholic flute and sombre orchestration suggesting all is still not well.
Some have argued that Drake’s tales of isolation, despair and often two-dimensional characters render his work “too adolescent” to be taken seriously. Joe Boyd remembers that even Drake displayed dissatisfaction with the finished album, claiming the string, brass and saxophone arrangements made it “too full, too elaborate”. As a result Drake decreed there and then that his third album, 1972’s “Pink Moon”, would be “just me and my guitar”.
If it weren’t for the likes of Paul Weller, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and even The Cure’s Robert Smith enthusing over his work, it would be hard to see what turned people on to Nick Drake. But with melodies as sweet as those contained in Bryter Layter, with lyrics and arrangements to match, it’s hardly surprising that young and old are soon addicted. Not to mention the bootlegs of rare home recordings to interest collectors and nerds (is there really a difference?) alike, and the tragic end to his life – it seems likely that Drake’s posthumous fame and popularity can only grow.
Whether or not all this attention is too late is a curious matter in itself: it’s been argued (pretty coherently, too) that our Man In London could have planned it all this way. It might just be my father, his colleague and I, but it feels like albums such as “Bryter Layter” weren’t meant to be heard per se, but to be discovered.
By: Colin Cooper
Published on: 2004-03-02