Singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen, a parade of interchangeable hacks whose attempts at introspection amount to little more than glorified whining. In the case of Nick Drake, however, there are many important elements that differentiate him from this procession of me-too emotion-prostitutes, factors that elevate him to the pinnacle of this lamentably oversaturated genre.
First of all, Drake's lyrics are considerably more intelligent and oblique than the self-pitying confessional fare that typifies the singer-songwriter scene. While deeply personal, Drake's lyrics remain relatively cryptic, a far cry from tear-jerking lost-love theatrics or amateur philosophizing.
Another crucial factor that separates Drake from his singer-songwriter brethren is the haunting minimalism of his work. One could argue that minimalism is the norm for the genre, but there's a profound difference between limited instrumentation and true minimalism. Drake's work features an eloquent, lyrical spareness, a moody minimalism that's rich in both emotion and atmosphere. This kind of elegant, sparse arrangement can't be recreated by simply strumming an acoustic and saying that you're the second coming of Mark Knopfler. Under-arrangement, when not accompanied by the proper elements, is as much a vice as over-instrumentation, and thus establishing a truly minimalist atmosphere demands a tricky feat of balance and instrumental dexterity that can only be pulled off by a true artist.
Beyond minimalism, there are other factors unique to Drake that contribute to the atmospherics on Five Leaves Left. Drake's work is imbued with a certain melancholia, a wistful sadness that never descends into the forced, theatrical depression that certain singer-songwriters feel is the recipe for catharsis. Drake's emotions feel genuine and credible, neither exaggerated nor manufactured. Furthermore, Drake never exploits these emotions, preferring to simply allow them to come across in a natural and organic manner.
The most important element that separates Drake from his fellow singer-songwriters, however, is the level of emotional connection with his audience. Once again, this is something that nearly all singer-songwriters aspire to, but their attempts at establishing an emotional bond with their listeners are invariably marred by over-emoting and crude hysterics. Such is not the case with Five Leaves Left, an album that builds such a sense of intimacy with Nick Drake that by the end of the LP the listener will doubtlessly be emotionally exhausted. A connection of this intensity is hard to find, as Drake effortlessly accomplishes something that most of his colleagues could never dream of.
This feat is all the more impressive thanks to the manner in which the album adroitly evades certain pitfalls that threaten to imperil it. One of the more notable examples of this is the album's orchestration. Adding orchestration to a minimalist singer-songwriter album sounds like a recipe for disaster, threatening to corrupt the integrity of Drake's emotions. Fortunately, however, the orchestration actually complements and enhances the listening experience thanks to the tastefulness and moderation of these arrangements. The orchestration never once comes at the expense of the album's rich yet restrained emotional palette, leaving Drake's artistic vision completely intact.
It's amazing that despite the fact that Drake's brethren are called singer-songwriters, so few of them actually expend much energy in the songwriting department. Many seem to feel that raw, crudely expressed emotion alone is sufficient to make a song worthwhile. Thankfully, Drake does not subscribe to that philosophy, as the songwriting on Five Leaves Left remains impeccable throughout.
This may not be immediately apparent, as many of the hooks on the album are subtle and understated. Nevertheless, perseverance will be rewarded, as Five Leaves Left is filled with effective vocal melodies and hypnotic acoustic patterns. Furthermore, many tracks, like River Man and Fruit Tree, are genuinely beautiful, carrying with them an emotional heft that can't be denied.
Nick Drake may not be an everyman, but this fact never dilutes the emotional resonance of his work. At times Fives Leaves Left comes across as a more musically inclined version of a Leonard Cohen album. Drake's lyrics, while strong, are no match for Cohen's unparalleled poetry, but Drake certainly has the edge when it comes to music. Drake is actually a skilled guitarist, not simply aimlessly strumming as Cohen tends to, while the former's somber vocals are far more rich than the latter's usual pseudo-recitation.
It's difficult to deny that there are external factors that contribute to the album's potency. It's well known that Drake committed suicide, and at a tender age at that. This compounds the forcefulness of the album's already melancholic tendencies. Furthermore, the lyrics of Fruit Tree feel oddly prophetic, as the song is a rumination on how many achieve fame only after they've died. This is a phenomenon that certainly applies to Drake, an artist who enjoyed little success in life but became a cult figure in death.
Even disregarding the emotional influence of Drake's demise, however, Five Leaves Left is a profoundly powerful album. On a basic level the album is well-written and skillfully performed, and when this solid foundation is married to Drake's incomparable emotional resonance the album becomes a true classic. Most average singer-songwriters could never hope to create a work of this depth and power, but then again Nick Drake was hardly an average singer-songwriter.
There was never any doubt that the foundation of all Nick Drake albums would be the melancholic singer-songwriter strumming on his acoustic guitar while sweetly singing his unique brand of emotive poetry. When the core of an artist's work is that simple and spare, however, nearly any change to his basic style, no matter how innocuous or subtle, will seem like a radical reinvention. Thus even the slightest shift can seem revolutionary, as minor adjustments are amplified a thousand fold for a man for whom change seems almost inconceivable. Nick Drake quite simply was an artist who sang and played guitar, and this deceptively basic formula had already achieved a kind of perfection that would never need to be altered or revised.
Predictable enough, when change did come it left the basic core of Nick Drake's style intact. Also predictably enough, the changes still elicited a profound reaction from Drake's devotees.
Bryter Layter is frequently called over-orchestrated, but this could give one the wrong impression. The album is still minimalistic, merely not to the extent of its stripped-down predecessor. The change is purely a relative one, but as I stated before, in the context of Drake any alteration is inflated to massive proportions. Five Leaves Left ran on minimalism, and even a mere shift of the intensity of this spareness can dramatically affect the overall product.
I alluded to the reflexive overreactions of Drake fans, but this isn't meant to undermine the extent of the changes brought about by increased orchestrations. Bryter Layter is somewhat more mellow in tone than Drake's debut. While Five Leaves Left's emotional palette was rather restrained and subdued, it still helped cultivate a deeply personal connection between Drake and the listener. Unfortunately, Bryter Layter's orchestration serves to smooth out some of the rough edges of Drake's emotionality, and while this hardly severs the connection between him and his audience it does dilute the potency of the album's pathos.
It's not as if the album is bereft of emotion, but while Northern Sky, for example, is quite beautiful, its emotional impact is broader and less intimate than what a Drake fan is accustomed to. The track never feels forced, but it does feel like something that many other singer-songwriters lacking Drake's gifts could have pulled off with relative ease.
Still, to say that over-orchestration ruined Bryter Layter, or even marred it to a meaningful extent, is a gross simplification of a far more complex situation. The album may have suffered losses from its Robert Kirby-arranged instrumentation, but that doesn't mean that it gained nothing in the process.
Most of the orchestration is deftly handled and gracefully implemented, helping to flesh out the latent potential of many numbers. Were it not for one's familiarity with the minimalistic glory of Five Leaves Left, one would never even think to question the intelligence of including these arrangements, as they undoubtedly add much to the final product.
Highlights abound on the album. Three impressive instrumentals serve to showcase another side of Drake's songwriting prowess, particularly the closer Sunday which constitutes one of the most moving tracks on the CD. Hazey Jane I is a rare up-tempo track from the customarily somber Drake, while Hazey Jane II is more typical of him but none the worse for it.
It's two tracks, however, that particularly stand out. At The Chime Of A City Clock is a moody, atmospheric classic, and in contrast to many other tracks on the album it retains the edginess that defined Five Leaves Left.
Poor Boy is closer to a radical departure from Nick Drake's norm than nearly anything else in his canon. While some would call it over-orchestrated, I feel that, as it's something decidedly different, the customary criteria for evaluating Drake's work needn't apply. On the contrary, I believe that it excels at exactly what it's trying for, and by those standards I'd call it a huge success. The blend of bleak balladry, sardonic humor and jazzy overtones is highly effective, and even its questionable inclusion of female backup singers does nothing to mar one's overall impression of the song.
There are admittedly weaker moments. One Of These Things First is grating with its incongruous whimsy and awkward tenderness, and there are times on the album when the lack of rough edges can defang what would otherwise be more weighty compositions. The album is remarkably consistent, however, with only a modicum of filler and no true embarrassments.
Ultimately Bryter Layter is destined to prove divisive for a Nick Drake audience. Five Leaves Left is far more emotionally powerful, and establishes a much greater, more intimate bond with its listeners. Bryter Layter, however, is more accessible thanks to its fuller arrangements and more fleshed out songwriting. Bryter Layter is also a more song-oriented album, and whereas Five Leaves Left was a more cohesive experience its successor focuses more on individual tracks, making less effort to unify or integrate them into a greater whole.
Personally I prefer the emotional experience and haunting minimalism of Fives Leaves Left, but I would never question the merit of Bryter Layter's array of well-constructed compositions. This situation has been echoed by many inheritors of Drake's spare singer-songwriter style. One such instance is the case of Samuel Beam, as exemplified by the transition from Iron & Wine's debut, the hyper-minimalistic The Creek Drank The Cradle, to the more musically intensive and elaborate Our Endless Numbered Days. Cases such as this will invariably lead to vicious, ad hominem debates amongst fans, would-be critics bandying around ridiculous slurs and clichés like 'sell-out' that they're incapable of assessing an artist without using.
Bryter Layter isn't a sell-out, and while I have my own opinions I don't really believe that there's a 'right' or 'wrong' when it comes to Drake's new direction. Drake simply made a choice, reaping both the good and the bad that came with this decision.
It's natural to be intimidated by Pink Moon at first. The album has a reputation for being the least commercial and least accessible album of Nick Drake's all too brief career. Furthermore, Pink Moon's status as Drake's swansong, produced shortly before he took his own life, places the album on a kind of pedestal that makes it difficult to approach.
The album's inaccessibility can largely be attributed to its minimalist style. Obviously Bryter Layter and especially Five Leaves Left are minimalistic in their own right, but Pink Moon carries this spareness to new extremes. Nick Drake's acoustic strumming and emotive vocals have always been at the forefront of his art, but on Pink Moon they shine to the exclusion of all else. Save for some tasteful piano overdubs on the title track, Pink Moon features no instrumentation beyond Drake's trusty guitarwork, a level of minimalism that will doubtless ward off nearly all Nick Drake neophytes.
The truth is, however, that I never found Pink Moon to be terribly challenging or difficult. A large part of this is likely due to my inherent fondness for minimalism in music, a predilection for the form that animates my love for early Dire Straits and nearly anything by J.J. Cale.
This doesn't, however, fully account for my ease of enjoyment. While I am indeed partial to minimalism, this only extends to the style when it's accompanied by compelling melodies and skillful musicianship. Fortunately, on Pink Moon Drake never disappoints in this department, as the album boasts some of his most inspired vocal melodies and lyrical guitarwork.
There are problems, however. Pink Moon is certainly an exceptional album, but despite Drake's mastery of minimalism the arrangements can sometimes be too sparse for their own good. Not a single song on the album demands further orchestration, but that doesn't mean that none of them would benefit from it. As good as songs like Place To Be are, I can't help feeling that they would be even better with some subtle, understated orchestration to flesh out their full potential.
This leads to a rather peculiar scenario. Pink Moon is a terrific album that boasts hugely atmospheric, evocative minimalism, but could perhaps benefit from some orchestration that, while it wouldn't replace the minimalism, might temper it a bit. On the other hand, Bryter Layter is a superb album with effective orchestration that nevertheless lacks the haunting minimalism that permeates Drake's best work.
One would surmise that the solution to this problem would be to effect a kind of balance between these extremes, but the irony is that Drake had already achieved this on his very first album. Five Leaves Left marries the elegant minimalism of Pink Moon to the impressive orchestration of Bryter Layter, reaching an equilibrium of sorts that combines the best of both worlds.
Somehow Drake was simply never able to recapture the magic of his first effort, as if elements that once had demonstrated an excellent chemistry together had suddenly become irreconcilable with one another. Never again would minimalism and orchestration intermingle with such effortless grace as they had on Five Leaves Left, an inexplicable phenomenon that can now never be resolved.
An album needn't attain perfection to be worthwhile, however. Bryter Layter is a brilliant album, and Pink Moon may very well be even better. Songs like Road and Things Behind The Sun rank amongst the best songs that Drake ever composed, and superb tracks like Free Ride and Know aren't far behind. When one is under the spell of an enthralling number like the title track he won't have occasion to begrudge the song its lack of Roger Kirby orchestration.
Some might find Pink Moon to be too short, as the album clocks in at less than thirty minutes. Personally I feel that the album is the perfect length, as the intimacy that Drake builds with his audience is further strengthened by the potency and conciseness of his musical vision.
At this length the album can't afford to have any filler, an obstacle that Drake adroitly overcomes. Each track is meticulously crafted, and moreover each song feels like it has a real purpose on the album. Admittedly the instrumental Horn may take its minimalism a bit too far, but at its short length the track ends well before one can grow weary of it.
Thus Pink Moon is a brilliant album and a fitting swansong for the prodigiously gifted Drake. While it may not achieve the near-perfection of Five Leaves Left, the album remains a fascinating and compelling experience, one that reluctant listeners should overcome their trepidation over and listen to without fear or prejudice.