Nick Drake (1970)
When a brilliant artist dies young, to view their art through any other lens than that of their heartbreakingly short lives often makes for an incomplete picture. In the case of British singer-songwriter Nick Drake, who died of an overdose of anti-depressants at the age of 26, his death did not propel him into fame in quite the same way that the deaths of other young musicians have.
Today, Drake is widely considered to be one of the foremost singer-songwriters of his generation. It is his sheer virtuosity, his clean, dazzling guitar work and his inimitably plaintive voice, not his death, which has earned him posthumous praise. While he remains unknown to the most of the world, he has garnered a devoted following among those fortunate enough to stumble upon his music.
Bryter Layter, the middle of the three exceptional if unknown records Drake made between 1969 and 1972, is a beautiful, autumnal album. Recorded when Drake was just 22 years old, Bryter Layter is the clearest example of his genius. His sweet falsetto soars over skillful guitar melodies and string accompaniments and then, at other times, drops lower to a rich, sonorous chest voice that reverberates with longing. Every song seems appropriate for a different occasion, and yet at the same time all of the tracks work together as they paint a red and orange watercolor of the England Drake knew in his time. The album begs to be listened to under a tree at sunset in the countryside, much like the Tanworth-in-Arden that Drake knew growing up.
The glittering instrumental “Introduction” sets the tone for the album. Cellos and violins swell and recede over Drake’s flowing streams of guitar pizzicato. The tempo picks up on the sunny “Hazey Jane II” before rolling into the echoing, autumnal beauty and strings on “At the Chime of a City Clock.” The undulating piano and delicate chord picking on “One of These Things First” gives the impression of looking out of a car window as the world rolls by.
Drake was a master of introspective songwriting. He experimented with a jazzier sound on “Poor Boy,” which has a gospel-like refrain that repeats, “Oh poor boy / So worried for his health.” Drake hid away the magical, sparkling treasure of “Northern Sky” at the end of the album, coming in ninth out of ten tracks. With is rainy, revelatory arpeggios and pleading “Would you love me through the winter / Would you love me ’til I’m dead” chorus, “Northern Sky” is one of the most beautiful love songs ever recorded.
The overwhelming feeling that comes after listening to Bryter Layter is similar to the feeling of looking at a Van Gogh. His desolate last canvas of a wheat field with crows fills one’s heart with a particular kind of elegant desperation. Van Gogh’s paintings, which went unsold for the duration of his life, and Drake’s albums, which saw almost no success while he was alive, beg similar questions: How could men like these go unnoticed in their time?
So many artists seek to affirm their tumultuous lives through their art. Drake was no exception. In the documentary “A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake,” Nick’s sister Gabrielle said “A lot of young people have found his music such a help. And that I think would have pleased him so very very much. He once said to my mother ‘If only I could feel that my music had ever done anything to help one single person it would have made it worth it.'”
This is the charm of Nick Drake, and indeed of the beautiful Bryter Layter. While his songs have since been used somewhat inconspicuously in everything from Volkswagen ads to movie soundtracks from “Serendipity” and “Garden State,” Drake did not seek commercial success. He instead yearned for the validation that a fragile young artist so desperately needed. He just wanted the world to listen, if only for a moment, to his music. This fact coupled with his tragic death, cast a shadow of exquisite urgency over his entire discography.
Drake would go on to record Pink Moon, his third and final album, on which he sang in a broken voice, “Fame is but a fruit tree / So very unsound …” He continues, singing “Fruit tree, fruit tree / No one knows you but the rain and the air / Don’t you worry / They’ll all know / That you were here when you’re gone.” What a shame it is that Nick Drake never knew how important his songs would become for so many captivated fans. However, he did leave behind the seeds of his vision in albums like Bryter Layter, which continue to bewitch listeners with their unsurpassed beauty.