Friday, September 16, 2011

Five Leaves Left - Nick Drake



Five Leaves Left
Nick Drake
Antilles  AN-7010
1969

I recently read Patrick Humphries' biography of Nick Drake.  It is not a fun read but worthwhile if you are a Drake fan.  I had all kinds of questions about the man, but after reading the book he remains a cipher to me.  Apparently no one ever really understood him or his problems.  I became interested in Drake through Fairport Convention.  In my late teens I was obsessed with Fairport and after exhausting the original albums I branched off into their various offshoots.  Drake wasn't technically an offshoot, but he was discovered by Ashley Hutchings, was managed and produced by Joe Boyd (who performed the same function with Fairport) and various Fairporters played on his first two albums.  This is the American version of Drake's debut album released on Island Records' subsidiary label Antilles in 1976.  The original Island release in the U. K. featured a gatefold cover with a different back cover.  The picture on the back cover here was originally in the gatefold and the front cover of the Island release was a lighter shade of green.  This album was not released in the U. S. during Drake's lifetime although a few of its tracks appear on a rare comp entitled "Nick Drake" that was the only American release of his music while he was alive.  One of the things that impressed me in the book was Island's treatment of Drake.  Even though he refused to tour and did almost no publicity for his records, they kept him on their roster, gave him complete creative freedom and kept his records in the catalogue despite dismal sales.  What American record company would have done that in the 1970s?  Kudos to Island and Chris Blackwell!  I bought this album around 1980 in Berkeley.  I really wanted the "Fruit Tree" box set which was released around that time, but as a starving student, it was out of my price range.  I was enormously impressed by this album when I first heard it and it has remained a favorite ever since.  The album opens with "Time Has Told Me" which is a fatalistic love song which with hindsight seems revealing of his mentality both in its passivity and references to mental unease.  Drake's acoustic guitar playing is very distinctive and lovely on this song.  According to Humphries, Drake achieved his unique style through unusual tunings and a complicated picking style.  He is supported by Richard Thompson on electric guitar although he seems superfluous considering the richness of Drake's own playing.  "River Man" is one of Drake's best known songs.  It has a haunting melody and enigmatic lyrics.  I'm not crazy about the string arrangement, Drake would later complain about the over-production on his first two albums and I can see his point listening to this song.  "Three Hours" is one of my favorite songs on the album.  It has a Middle Eastern feel to it and a dazzling guitar performance from Drake as well as one of his most compelling vocals.  According to Humphries, the song is about a school friend of Drake although the song is enigmatic enough to apply to anyone looking for escape.  On "Way To Blue" Drake is accompanied only by a string arrangement by his college friend Robert Kirby.  In this case I think the strings do enhance the yearning quality of the song.  The lyrics describe someone seeking something, enlightenment or some sort of fulfillment.  Again with hindsight it is tempting to see it as a more personal song than it probably really is.  The A side concludes with "Day Is Done" featuring Kirby's strings along with Drake on guitar.  As with many of the lyrics on the album, Drake uses nature to express his reflections on people and their lives.  It is a beautiful, but gloomy song that describes an existential perspective on the insignificance of our daily lives.  I love "'Cello Song" which features more splendid guitar work from Drake supported by a hypnotic bass riff from Danny Thompson (of Pentangle) and lovely cello passages courtesy of Clare Lowther.  From an instrumental standpoint, I think it is the best song on the record.  Lyrically it is yet another song about transcendence and escape.  "The Thoughts of Mary Jane" is the most upbeat song on the record.  The title character is a bit twee, but it is a relief from the dark tone on most of the other songs.  I particularly like the high tempo guitar passage at the end, Drake's version of a rave-up perhaps.  The jazzy "Man In the Shed" continues the upbeat feeling musically with some propulsive piano support from Paul Harris and typically strong bass lines from Danny Thompson.  The lyrics are peculiar, almost silly, although the line "please stop my world from raining through my head" has a lot of resonance considering Drake's future mental problems.  "Fruit Tree" is one of Drake's more famous songs and deservedly so.  His musings on the transience of fame and particularly on posthumous fame foreshadows Drake's career although he couldn't possibly have known it as the time.  Humphries' bio suggests that his lack of success was one of the prime contributors to Drake's mental illness and "Fruit Tree" indicates that it was a subject of considerable significance to Drake.  This melancholy song features another very effective string arrangement from Robert Kirby that greatly enhances its emotional impact.  The album concludes with "Saturday Sun" which has a jazzy arrangement with Drake on piano and Tristam Fry on vibraphone.  The lyrics speak of confusion and missed opportunities, I can hardly resist applying them to Drake's life although I imagine that Drake was just making general observations about life.  I'm constantly tempted to filter this album through the myth of Nick Drake that has grown around him since his death, but this album was written and recorded before his mental illness took hold of him, back when he was essentially a normal person albeit a withdrawn and shy one.  When I first bought this record, I felt Drake was a kindred soul, his lyrics really spoke to me, but now I'm mostly just drawn to the music.  I still admire some of his words and his evocative imagery but I don't relate very strongly to his perspective.  I think that is just part of getting older.  When I was in my teens and twenties, I had lots of confusion and bewilderment about life and my place in the world, which is now largely gone.  Lyrically I relate more to grizzled veterans like Richard Thompson, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan now.  But I will always have a soft spot for Drake, I spent many melancholy evenings spinning this album and feeling reassured that someone understood the way I felt back then.  He has become such a popular artist, loved by so many people, it is heartbreaking to think that he died in such obscurity, feeling like an abject failure.  Recommended for mixed-up college students.

3 comments:

  1. I love Nick Drake's music, but it's hard to think too closely about him without getting depressed! The documentary, "A Skin Too Few," is short, but interesting -- well worth a watch. Definitely not a feel-good movie.

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  2. Hey, I got a question: Could you please check the vinyl's lyrics to see in the song Fruit Tree if it's "stalk" or "stock"? It appears twice, maybe it's different the second time, or maybe they're the same... but which one? :)
    I wanted to check for the original spelling... thanks a lot!
    amosquitoz@gmail.com

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    Replies
    1. Unfortunately there is no lyric sheet with the album. There is a copy of Drake's handwritten lyrics for "Fruit Tree" at Nickdrake.net and though his handwriting is not easy to read, it sure looks like he wrote "stock" to me. For what it is worth, the lyrics provided at Nickdrake.com, which are described as being compiled and authorized by the Nick Drake estate, also use the word "stock".

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