It’s dark and cold outside, I’m up before the sun (had to be, by 8pm yesterday I had been up for 31 hours straight so I just went to bed “early”) and I’m down to my last cup of hot cocoa. It’s time to talk about Nick Drake.
It’s fortunate that I didn’t decide to do this project about a year ago when I was obsessed with Nick Drake. I might have written 122 entries about each of his albums, and still find space to write about the other posthumous releases. Watch out, though, I might still!
If you don’t know already, Nick Drake became a really big deal in music, rather, his story did, about 30 years after he died tragically. He was a young man of 21 when he recorded his debut, Five Leaves Left, over a period of about a year in 1969.
I’m not really a big authority on English folk music from the 60′s-70′s, but I do enjoy it so. What makes Nick Drake’s recording stand out to me is the pure, untouched quality of his songwriting and guitar. The recording method implemented for all 3 of his albums was to emphasize his extremely precise method of finger-picking and bring his vocals to the front of the mix, without any reverb (the same method was used to record Leonard Cohen’s early albums, which believe me I will be talking about at length in the future). The result is that you can easily imagine yourself in the room where the songs are being recorded, and yet there is still room for a small orchestra of other instruments, and even an electric guitar on exactly one track.
That track is the opener, “Time Has Told Me“, an introspective love song that simultaneously seems to have a jazz and country feel to it. Either way it’s very strong, and establishes Nick’s guitar-playing very well, despite the presence of piano and electric guitar, both of which play a supporting role. The song features no percussion, as it was apparently decided that Nick’s guitar held enough rhythm for everyone. The lyrics are, as with a lot of Nick’s songs, optimistic while dealing with the struggles of a world gone wrong:
And time has told me
Not to ask for more
Someday our ocean
Will find its shore.
Then comes “River Man“, possibly my favorite song on the album. The first thing to note about this song is the time signature. If you don’t know a lot about music, the rhythm of most songs can be divided into 4 beats every measure (you can follow music by counting 1-2-3-4 rhythmically) which is called 4/4, well River Man is in 5/4, meaning you have to count to 5 every measure. I can tell you for a fact that this feat is impossible for a lot of musicians. Nick not only works with this signature, but he incorporates the vocals in a way that seem to linger around with that extra beat, making the whole thing sound dream-like in a way. Quite relaxing, particularly given the second thing you might notice about the song, the sea of strings the song floats around on. The sound of the song is perfect for the lyrical themes, since we’re dealing with rivers and flowing and such.
Then comes “Three Hours“, a song which is kind of lost on me lyrically since it seems to be literary, maybe even based on an existing story. The arrangement is a really good finger-picking rhythm (that changes towards the end) and upright bass that I don’t quite approve of. It seems to meander a lot, but it does the job of staying in the background, at least. There is also some hand-percussion going on which also hangs out in the background, which was also present in some earlier demo versions that can be found, one of which also includes a flute. I am very glad they didn’t go with a flute on this particular track.
If you enjoyed the presence of strings on “River Man”, then you may also like the 4th song, “Way To Blue“, since aside from the vocals, is all strings! It’s a lovely re-interpretation of a piano part Nick originally wrote for this song, but apparently wouldn’t have gone well with piano, so any instrumentation by Nick was eschewed.
The next song, however, features what I think is some of Nick’s best guitar-work. “Day Is Done” was written with the rather chipper lyrical theme of “oh god everyone’s doomed” and the strings that accompany the guitar in this track emphasize that. The theme is amended however in the next song, “‘Cello Song“, which is a bit more hopeful, despite the presence of lines like:
But while the earth sinks to its grave
You sail to the sky
On the crest of a wave.
The instrument spoken of in the title is very intentionally spelled ‘cello with the apostrophe because Nick apparently wanted to stay true to his old English roots, as “cello” is actually short for “violoncello”, and the abbreviation used to be ‘cello, though the apostrophe is nowadays omitted. There, of course, is a ‘cello in the song that plays a line that Nick sings, and the two interplay with each other in a very catchy way.
The next song, “The Thoughts Of Mary Jane“, is one that I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about. It’s a lovely song, and lyrically you could almost think it’s not just a euphemism on marijuana, but I’m not crazy about the flute that plays the melody. I’m not sure how I could have done it differently if it were up to me, but I still would have. The song well establishes a more colorful mood, which makes the next song feel quite welcome.
“Man In A Shed“, a jazzy number incorporating piano and Danny Thompson’s upright bass work (much improved from “Three Hours”, I feel), is the high point, lyrically and melodically, of the album. The idea is of a poor man trying to attract a well-off (at least in his opinion) girl, though the shed and house could be allegorical for states of mind, the shed being depression and the house being a normal life. It does rather remind me of someone in a depressed state of mind trying to make the best of things despite it all.
If I had to think of the songs I have found to be the most prophetic for the author, one of the first songs that would come into my head would be “Fruit Tree“. The song is remarkable, as it is about being famous only after you’re dead and buried, which is not a new story, but it’s exactly what happened to Nick Drake.
Safe in the womb
Of an everlasting night
You find the darkness can
Give the brightest light.
Safe in your place deep in the earth
That’s when they’ll know what you were really worth.
Quite a low note to end an album on, for sure. Thankfully the album picks up once more with “Saturday Sun“, which features some interesting vibraphone work and Nick himself on piano. The song ends with the line:
So Sunday sat in the Saturday sun
And wept for a day gone by.
Which seems appropriate, since the song itself sounds less like the definite end to the album, and more of an epilogue to “Fruit Tree” that hints at the approach of another album. Indeed another album was made, Bryter Layter, and the final song on that album is called “Sunday”, so perhaps that was intentional, or maybe more of a connection that I imagined. Either way, Five Leaves Left ends as it started, with the passage of time, which is really the only constant in an unpredictable life.
Indeed, Nick’s life was unpredictable, and it ended far too soon. I’ll probably touch more on his story whenever I get around to talking about his other two albums, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon. For now, however, I will say that, no matter what the story of the author or the album, Five Leaves Left is a really good album. I have listened to it in the past year or two more times than I care to think about (there was a time when I listened to it daily), which makes it actually a lot harder to write about. Maybe I should make another 122 entries about it!
…or not. Either way, my cocoa is gone now and the sun has come out to hide behind some rain clouds. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s entry where I’ll most likely talk about an album!
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