Nick Drake – 1970

The turn of the decade, now we’re spiraling into an era where English folk music could really spread its wings. Nick Drake, far from being the perceived sad sack they’d hear later on Pink Moon was attempting to present all his gifted taste and sophistication. Although, the failure of Five Leaves Left left him a bit disappointed, he’d attempt to make his next album more inviting and personable than before. In doing so, Nick created his truest, most personal album, one that spoke of the English way of life and his place in that land. Rather than just portray an overriding theme of beautiful pastoral music, Nick would use some truly great musicians to capture the actual vivid feeling of England as he experienced it, sight and sound – whole and round.

What spurred Nick to sound more jazz-inflected, to expand the instrument palette that accompanied him? Many people argued incorrectly, that it was imposed on him. Only now, are people coming around that Nick himself, although not being able to express it clearly, wanted to use this kind of sound to make a statement. Rather than repeat himself, he wanted to try to create some kind of happy sad album…some kind of bittersweet feeling that could show different sides of Nick’s musicianship. 
For this session, Joe Boyd and John Wood (producer and engineer, respectively) drafted the rhythm section of Full House-era Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson on electric guitar, Dave Mattacks on drums, and Daniel Pegg on bass. With that base they’d ask Robert Kirby to rejoin as string arranger. Somehow, around that same time Nick’s influences were forcing Nick to push himself further. One unheralded American influence, Tim Buckley, had transformed from psychedelic folk artist to jazz-folk in Happy Sad and Blue Afternoon then to the avant-garde folk of Lorca in the span of a year. Another, Bert Jansch was showing immense variety both in the pastoral folk (1969’s Birthday Blues) and the progressive folk of his own band the Pentangle (Basket of Light specifically). Another gifted guitarist like Nick, John Renbourn, was recording uniquely classically English guitar explorations like Sir John Alot. People forget, that Nick in spite of his shyness, was always a competitive musician. He wanted to sound different and become famous on his own accord. 
Bryter Layter photo session.

As much, as we’d like to think Nick was a unique snowflake, musical history says otherwise and he himself felt repeating the same formula twice would be a recipe for disaster. These other artists were creating challenging, evolving folk music that he’d desperately had to compete with and standout from. Its no wonder that as Nick’s ambitious sonic vision grew Joe deemed it wise to round out his session crew with a couple of Beach Boys studio artists, and one thoroughly enthused John Cale from the Velvet Underground. One can imagine John, especially, needed the bit more lighthearted, romantic sonic respite that Nick was going for, if just for a bit, to take his mind off doing arrangements for Nico’s avant-folk Desertshore. Previously Five Leaves Left was recorded on a 4-track machine, and Joe bumped up this recording to an 8-track to more cohesively fill in the music. In a way much like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, its spiritual successor, Nick’s reported lack of communication with the musicians in a way helped free them to explore for that feeling he was trying to put across.

Bryter Layter album cover.

The feeling of a sheltered young man from the suburbs moving to the modern city is, if anything, the theme hovering around this whole recording. Around 1969 he had moved to London and was experiencing all the impulses and affectations that huge city could impose on someone as naturally withdrawn as him. Forced to open up a bit more by necessity, he was able to adapt to certain things, but not all things easily. You can hear this push and pull of fleeing back home to safe suburbia and staying in the hustle and bustle of unknown industrial England in the sound of “At the Chime of the City Clock.”

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The song itself is just fascinating. Its another updated take on the fractured post-bossanova sound first explored in the debut, here though it gets taken to its logical fruition. Capturing that beautiful essence of saudade, bittersweetness, through a sophisticated and complex Jazz rhythm arrangement that hints of the beauty/wonderment for the city life but constantly gets undermined by the lyrics phrased and sung in such a knowingly measured way by Nick. In its own way, what Nick was capturing was the very human plight of the Englishman having to navigate through a modern life that required letting go of certain naturally comforting things to survive.

Even without words the feeling the first track gives off is a feeling of wonderment. Wonderment can rub both ways and is such a driving force for this album. When you hear that hard driving boogie that is played by Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks that kicks of “Hazey Jane II”, and Nick sings his first lyrics that openly admit he can’t explain everything away in the world. Probably, for the first time in his life he feels secure in admitting his insecurities. This personal release from then on builds the beauty of the album.

When you hear the very carefree guitar playing in one of his collaborations with John Cale, “Northern Sky”, you get a taste of the man we miss now. The man who stared out the moonlit window inside John Martyn’s home and write one of the best reassuring love songs ever, a true romantic masterpiece. Its the song that convinced John to join the project as a collaborator instantly the first time he heard a demo of it. And one that John wisely lets Nick gorgeous guitar playing and vocals drive the song into the night, only drawing moon shadows with celeste, organ, and piano for contrast.

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When Nick opened for Fairport Convention only months earlier, with his friend John Martyn, there was cause for him to feel assured. He was at the cusp of a new English folk music, one with many gradients and colors. Only time would tell why he changed so much after the release of this album. There was reason to believe things would get brighter later. During those gray times, man wasn’t he willing to find ways to brighten your northern skies…

bonus track, my favorite song from the album the majestic “Hazey Jane I”:

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