Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
In February 2012 I took a break from my usual multi-part series on particular artists to focus a single post on the brief but brilliant career of one-time cult-hero Nick Drake. By the late-’90s, thanks to a popular Volkswagen television advertisement that featured his song “Pink Moon,” Drake had finally cracked into the mainstream 25 years after his death at the age of 26. Seeing him achieve notoriety after all that time was a wonderful feeling, and it’s nice to know that future generations of songwriters will continue to be influenced by his one-of-a-kind music. He only released three albums during his lifetime, all of them essential listening, but his 1969 debut Five Leaves Left is probably my favorite.
For more information on this series, please read the opening paragraph of the first post, which featured the debut album from Led Zeppelin.
His debut album, Five Leaves Left, is a nearly perfect collection, especially remarkable considering he was only 21 when it was recorded. I love the way his voice comes seemingly out of nowhere, in the middle of his guitar pattern, on album opener “Time Has Told Me.” This is something he does on many of his songs, giving them an airy, ethereal quality. Also featuring Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson on twangy lead guitar, this song has mature lyrics for such a young writer (“Time has told me not to ask for more, for someday our ocean will find its shore”). “River Man” features Drake on guitar and vocal, accompanied by a string arrangement (from his school friend, Robert Kirby), which becomes a featured soloist. This song has some dark lyrics (“Going to see the river man, going to tell him all I can about the ban on feeling free”), where it seems he wants to flow freely down life’s river but is unable to do so. The previously mentioned “Three Hours” is a classic. It reminds me of Bob Dylan’s longer tracks, with multiple stanzas of music instead of verses & choruses, and I love how the tempo slows down during the instrumental sections. Kirby provides another beautiful string arrangement on “Way To Blue,” which is the only musical accompaniment (no guitar). Is this some kind of prayer to a higher power (“Tell me all you may know, show me what you have to show”)? His voice gets extra deep, mimicking a cello, at the words “know” and “show.” “Day Is Done” is a maudlin tune, reminding me of Pink Floyd’s “Time” (which wouldn’t be written for another few years), and featuring some deep lyrics (for such a young man) about time running out: “When the party’s through, seems so very sad for you; Didn’t do the things you meant to do, now there’s no time to start anew, now the party’s through.”
His smooth vocals on “Cello Song” sound as though he’s soothing someone who’s dying, letting her know he’s watching over her, yet it’s surprisingly cheerful. There’s a great plucked guitar pattern, and the bass & conga arrangement are similar to “Three Hours,” but the haunting cello melody really carries this song. “The Thoughts Of Mary Jane” is pastoral sounding, almost wistful, and it’s the first time the album truly breathes, like a pleasant sigh. “Man In A Shed” has a nice, bouncy piano melody, but it’s probably the weakest song here, both lyrically & melodically. “Fruit Tree” is deep & prophetic, about the fame he craved which sadly eluded him in his lifetime (“Safe in your place deep in the earth, that’s when they’ll know what you were really worth”). The arrangement is beautiful (especially the woodwinds), and I love the vocal melody at “It can never flourish ‘til its stalk is in the ground.” The album ends with the slow, jazzy “Saturday Sun,” which is like the downbeat cousin of the old standard, “That Lucky Old Sun,” about the sad passing of time. Although on the surface the album might sound like a downer, there’s something about his voice and the instrumental performances that make it much more enjoyable than it seems.
For you Nick Drake fans out there, do you prefer this album over his others, or did one of those make a bigger impact on you? Perhaps you just own a compilation and that’s enough? I would love to hear from you.