A gentle sounding English folk-singer, Nick Drake hardly caused a ripple during his short life-time; he was too shy to play live, and barely sold a record. Posthumously, his small catalogue has earned plenty of attention; his delicate and measured approach produced some of the most timeless music of his generation. A talented guitarist with a gentle voice that’s perfect for his material, it’s difficult to dislike Drake’s sensitive approach. While he can become monotonous if you’re not in the mood for his elegant ramblings, it takes a cynical mind to completely dismiss his unassuming talent.
All three of his albums are different in character; debut Five Leaves Left is more conventionally folk, Bryter Layter is lusher, while Pink Moon is rawer with Drake alone with an acoustic guitar. Throughout his short career, Drake was remarkably consistent; I count one substandard song on his three studio albums, the generic ‘Know’ from Pink Moon. Because of this consistency, choosing a favourite Nick Drake album can be a difficult process, and it probably comes down to which album’s sound you prefer. I prefer Bryter Layter, but that’s probably because it was my first Nick Drake album – if you like him, you’ll probably want to hear all three of his studio albums. There are also some albums of out-takes – I’ll cover 2004’s Made To Love Magic sometime, but it’s not as essential as his studio recordings.
While Drake’s become a cult figure, he enjoyed very little success in his lifetime – he had difficulties playing live, partly because he was a self-taught guitarist who employed a lot of different tunings and had to re-tune between songs. But he’s since been recognised as a unique talent, and a lot of his music has a timeless quality – his hushed delivery feels apiece to 21st century Indie records.
Nick Drake Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Bryter Layter
Five Leaves Left
Five Leaves Left is my least favourite of Drake’s three studio albums, but it’s still a gorgeous and mystical near-masterpiece. Drake and his acoustic guitar are the centrepiece, but he does enjoy various accompaniments, with strings and with members of Pentangle and Fairport Convention. Drake accompanies himself on piano on ‘Saturday Sun’, while ‘Way To Blue’ drops Drake’s guitar altogether and just leaves the strings.
Favourites include the moody ‘Riverman’ and the subtle jazzy groove of ‘Man In A Shed’. Drake’s lyrics are beautifully innocent and effortless in a way that an intellectual like Paul Simon could never hope to achieve: “Betty said she prayed today/For the sky to blow away/Or maybe stay/She wasn’t sure” reads a couplet in ‘River Man’. But musically Five Leaves Left is actually a difficult album to decode – it’s much more complex and nuanced than you’d expect from a folk-based artist, with alternate guitar tunings and complex strings – after plenty of listens, there’s always something new to discover.
The album’s title was grimly prophetic; five leaves (years, if we’re going to be literal) later Drake accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills, only leaving two further albums for an almost flawless recorded legacy.
I’ve always wondered what it would have sounded like if Nick Drake had decided to plug in an electric guitar and rock; unfortunately we don’t find out on Bryter Layter, or anywhere else in his catalogue. Like Five Leaves Left, Drake is again joined by Fairport Convention musicians and by strings, while John Cale is an important new contributor, adding beauty to gorgeous ballads ‘Fly’ and ‘Northern Sky’.
‘Northern Sky’ is a serious contender for the most beautiful song in the entire genre of popular music; Cale contributes lovely accompaniment on celeste, piano and organ, adding a lovely middle section that links the song’s two halves, while Drake breathes the elegantly enigmatic lyrics; “Been a long time that I’m waiting/Been a long time that I’m blown/I’ve been a long time that I’ve wandered/Through the people that I’ve known.” ‘Fly’ is almost as superb, bringing out the yearning in Drake’s voice. ‘At The Chime Of A City Clock’ and ‘One Of These Things First’ bring a jazzier touch, while the two separate parts of ‘Hazey Jane’ are alternately bright and soothing.
If there’s a quibble, the jazzy ‘Poor Boy’ drags a little at six and a half minutes, but Bryter Layter is still an album of almost unrivaled beauty.
After the failure of his first two gorgeous and ornately arranged albums, Nick Drake went the opposite route with his third. Recorded by Drake, facing the wall in a deserted studio late at night, Pink Moonshowcases him at his rawest. Without all the strings in the arrangements, it’s a pleasure to be able to hear Drake’s guitar at the forefront; the only overdub is some piano on the title track. While Drake never raises his voice, there’s an unsettling intensity in the insistent strum of ‘Things Behind The Sun’ and the fragile beauty of the title track.
It’s the first half of Pink Moon that’s really captivating; the title track, which boosted Drake’s profile immeasurably after being featured in a car commercial, has a beautifully delicate melody that’s complemented by the simple piano line. ‘Road’ and ‘Place To Be’ are similarly pretty, while ‘Which Will’ is gently insistent. The second half doesn’t quite reach the same heights; the generic lyrics of ‘Know’ damage Drake’s mystique a little.
Sadly, Drake’s recording career ended at Pink Moon, after he overdosed on sleeping pills two years later, unappreciated at the time but now a revered figure.
Made To Love Magic
Nick Drake’s leftover songs have been covered in a couple of outtakes collections – Time Of No Reply was released in 1987, and covered most of the same material as Made To Love Magic. This makes Magic a confusing release – it was originally planned as a remastered version of Time of No Reply, but ended up with a different track listing. It omits two tracks from Time Of No Reply – ‘Been Smoking Too Long’ and ‘Strange Meeting II’, while there’s one significant new song, ‘Tow The Line’. which wasn’t featured on Time of No Reply – it’s the last song Drake recorded.
It’s not presented chronologically like Time of No Reply – while Drake’s three studio albums were very well sequenced, and provided immersive listening experiences, this is like a random grab bag of Drake leftovers. Most of the songs either pre-date Five Leaves Left, or were recorded in his last recording sessions in 1974. The title track is sped up slightly from its Time Of No Reply version, and features a newly recorded Robert Kirby string part. It’s one of the most memorable songs here, but it also portrays a fey, hippie image of Drake that’s less grounded than his other work.
Drake’s recorded legacy is small enough that you’ll want to hear his outtakes if you’re a fan. In the digital music era, it’s tempting to want to grab all the new tracks from this album and Time Of No Reply, put them in chronological order, and make a more logical Nick Drake outtakes album.
Ten Favourite Nick Drake Songs
Things Behind The Sun
One Of These Things First
At The Chime Of A City Clock
Hazey Jane II
Place To Be