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SONGS TO BRIGHTEN A NORTHERN SKY
Bryter Layter - Nick Drake
Member Name: Mauri
Bryter Layter - Nick Drake
Date: 16/03/06, updated on 29/03/07 (496 review reads)
Advantages: Beautiful lyrics and music
Disadvantages: Sadly not popular on its first release
If a review of Nick Drake had been written say ten years ago most people’s reaction would have been Nick who? Today his albums are selling better than they ever did when they were first released and his reputation as one of England’s best singer songwriter is growing by the minute.
Unfortunately for us and for Nick Drake, this deserved success came too late for him, Drake died tragically young in 1974 after taking an overdose, he had been suffering from manic depression for some time and possibly the perceived commercial failure of all his music releases worsened his state of mind.
Bryter Layter is Drake’s second and best known album, it build’s upon the style and sound of his debut ‘Five Leaves Left’ and has been described as ‘Chamber’ Folk primarily for its use of stringed instruments (apart from guitars) and its intimate feel.
A difficulty in characterising Drake’s music especially on this recording possibly lies at the heart of his lack of commercial and critical recognition. Drake never fitted in. His music although sounding like it was part of the folk revival of the late 60’s and early 70’s didn’t have any roots in what most would call traditional folk music, his compositions were not political in nature he wasn’t protesting against anything much at a time where it was fashionable to do so in folk circles.
At the other end of the spectrum he didn’t quite fit in to the singer songwriter genre of the time which included people like Cat Stevens, Elton John and Joni Mitchell who were all more firmly based in the folk or rock tradition. If anything Drake could be aligned with artist such as John Martyn who was a friend of Drake’s and whose most enduring song ‘Solid Air’ is a tribute written to Drake shortly after he had tragically died. Martyn had more folk roots than Drake but by the early 70’s he like Drake was expanding his horizons and using a variety of different sounds in his music.
Hazey Jane II
At The Chime Of The City Clock
One Of These Things First
Hazey Jane I
‘Bryter Layter’ released in 1970 is a clear progression from his debut the rather melancholy ‘Five Leaves Left’ but there are signs that even at this early stage in his career Drake was prepared to take risks with his music.
The use of a variety of unusual instrument (unusual for a folk/pop record of the time) such as Flute, horns, Cello, Viola and harpsichord all lend the music as mystical ethereal quality. This is most evident of tracks like Hazy Jane I and II, which lift the album out of its more contemplative mournful sound.
Drake’s voice on this album is also distinctive, he has very English diction every word pronounced fully, another refreshing aspect to the sound at a time when many English artist were singing in the conventional ‘put-on’ American accent. It is surprising to know that someone who has such an expressive way of singing with restrained but strong emotion was actually very disparaging about his own abilities as a singer.
Hopes were high for this album and those involved in its production were convinced that this would be a classic and finally break Drake through into wider mainstream success. Indeed the producers Joe Boyd and John Wood said that ‘Bryter Layter’ was the “only perfect album they ever made”.
It is a testament to Nick Drake’s reputation amongst fellow artist that the personnel contributing to this project was so distinguished. Richard Thompson of Fairport Conventions plays guitar and John Cale the legendary founding member of Velvet Underground can be heard on Viola, Celeste and Organ on ‘Fly’ and ‘Northern Sky’.
I came to this album rather late like many others I had only heard of Drake being talked about knowingly by serious ‘musos’, a well-kept secret amongst them. It wasn’t until in the 90’s on the release of a tribute album ‘Way to Blue’ that I happened to hear the track ‘Northern Sky’ that blew me away. ‘Northern Sky’ is one of the standout tracks on ‘Bryter Layter’ and is just about a perfect love song. It is one of those tracks that seem familiar from the very first playing an instant classic that you are amazed to find never reached more than a very select few on its first airing. ‘Northern Sky’ has a dreamy, longing quality to it. It is grounded by a background of rolling and rich piano perfectly complement by Drake gentle soft beautifully spoken lyrics.
“I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you're here
Brighten my northern sky”
(Some may recognise it from the final scene of the film ‘Serendipity’, which again shows Drake’s recent emerging mainstream respect.)
Once I’d heard ‘Northern Sky’ I was hooked and listened to as much of Drake’s music as I could. ‘Bryter Layter’ was not a disappointment. Drake proves on this album that he’s not a one trick pony, the restrained emotions of songs like ‘Northern Sky’ and the equally brilliant ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’ are kept in balance by the livelier almost jazzy feel of Hazy Jane I and II. A totally different sound is found on another track ‘Poor Boy’, which involves a much more layer production more akin to a pop song. On this song the chorus a female backing vocal repeating the songs’ title, almost mocking the singer, counters the pleading tone of Drake’s lyrics.
The technical skill of the musicians and producers is evident throughout. Certainly the sound of the album with its mixture of folk ballads tinged with jazz sensibilities and popish complexity is far ahead of its time considering it was released in 1970. Maybe this was the problem for Drake, the fault for his lack of success lay not with his music but with the immaturity of his audience to appreciate such an innovative sound at a time where most music fans associated themselves in very strict delineations of musical taste. Drake fear/dislike of performing live related to his mental state also didn’t allow a grass roots fan base for his work to start up compounding the problem.
Drake was a tortured soul and much of this comes out in his music. His songs on ‘Bryter Layter’ as on his other two albums have a serious disillusioned quality to them even a love song such as ‘Northern Sky’ has an underlying sadness to it, you feel that his affirmation of love will fall on deaf ears and tragedy will follow.
This feeling of not achieving and longing for something that has now passed you by can be seen in the lyrics ‘One Of These Things First’.
‘I could have been your pillar, could have been your door
I could have stayed beside you, could have stayed for more.
Could have been your statue, could have been your friend,
A whole long lifetime could have been the end.’
Again the use of simple piano and guitar coupled with the thoughtful vocals lend the song a melancholy feel.
I don’t want to give the impression that the album sounds sad because it doesn’t. Knowing the tragic end that was to befall Drake the song take on added poignancy but overall the fell of the music although contemplative and introspective much of the time is still uplifting and the thought that at last Drake has achieved in part the recognition his talent deserves is worth being happy about.
So for those out there who don’t know Nick Drake go and listen to ‘Bryter Layter’ discover a true classic of 70’s music and be cheered by the fact that this is one classic that your parents or older sibling probably wont be smug about knowing of before you did.
‘Bryter Layter’ can be bought from Amazon.co.uk for £5.97 +p&p (at the time this review was written.
© Mauri 2006
Summary: A essential example of one of the best English singer songwriters