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Starting Point

Five Leaves Left—8

 

Released: 1969

1) Time Has Told Me  2) River Man  3) Three Hours  4) Way To Blue  5) Day Is Done  6) 'Cello Song  7) The Thoughts of Mary Jane  8) Man In A Shed  9) Fruit Tree  10) Saturday Sun

 

Nicholas Rodney Drake was born in June of 1948 in Rangoon, Burma to an upper class English engineering family located there since the mid 1930s.  Following World War II, Nick’s family returned to England, settling in the quiet village of Tanworth-in-Arden, right smack in the middle of the country, and lived a peaceful and relaxing life of English gentry.  Nick, like most in his social class, attended an all boys, public college, choosing the prestigious Marlborough.

 

By all accounts Drake was infinitely polite, tall, handsome, and extremely popular, but slightly introverted and quite shy during his middle teen years at Marlborough.  He first studied History (later switching to English), but academics played a backseat to music (he played the clarinet, the piano, and the alto saxophone in his early years there) and athletics (he was a star sprinter for the track team breaking the school’s 100 yard-dash record and a talented wing player on the rugby team).  As the Beatles, Stones and Dylan began to take over the world, Nick taught himself guitar to match the sound of his idols.  Although he was at times distant, most of his college classmates don’t remember anything but smiles from Nick Drake.

 

After graduation, instead of going immediately to university, Nick used his parents’ money to take a year off and lived in London, Southern France, and Morocco at the height of the Swinging Sixties.  He smoked dope, experimented with LSD, bummed around, and began writing songs on guitar for the first time.  After his year vacation, Drake attended Cambridge University in 1967.  He stayed only two years and never earned his degree, all the while concentrating more on his songwriting and guitar playing than his studies.  As luck would have it, Ashley Hutchings, founder of the monumental English folk group Fairport Convention, saw Drake give a rare live performance at a large Cambridge folk festival and told him to send a demo tape to Fairport’s manager and producer, Joe Boyd.  After listening, Boyd immediately signed the twenty-year old songwriter and the two began working on what would be Drake’s debut album, “Five Leaves Left.”

 

While this is an amazingly happy beginning, Nick Drake’s story quickly turns tragic.  He was undoubtedly one of the finest songwriters of his generation, composing songs of gentle beauty that eerily possessed a dark, haunting quality.  He wrote the kind of song that was almost too perfect—folk music at its best.  But despite his obvious talent, he released only three albums that sold barely 20,000 total copies during his all too short lifetime.  The likely cause of his meager sales came from the fact that Drake suffered from severe stage fright and only performed a dozen or so shows in his entire career which prevented him form building an audience through touring.  Ironically, it was also the lack of sales the acted as the catalyst for Drake’s eventual death at twenty-six, the result of a slow drift into mental madness. 

 

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  Nick Drake’s first album, “Five Leaves Left” is a flawed, but elegant folk tour de force.  In the same year as Woodstock…as Led Zeppelin, the Stooges, King Crimson, and the Allman Brothers’ debut…the same year as “Tommy”…the same year as “Blind Faith,” “Abbey Road,” “Arthur,” “Trout Mask Replica,” and “Let It Bleed,” Nick Drake released this forgotten, pensive, orchestrated winner.  While the tunes themselves might not have traditional choruses or background voices designed to make them memorable, for some reason each stays fresh in your head, so that when you hear them again, you are singing along—like whatever it is that causes déjà vu.  In truth, the album takes a while to appreciate, and the orchestration on some of the tracks is a little much, but overall this is one of the most dignified albums of the 1960s.             

 

Time Has Told Me” opens the record with a slow, aching, mid tempo blues ballad, featuring guest electric guitarist and label mate, Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson.  His expressive fills add a tinge of happiness to this track and Nick’s voice is stronger here than during most of his career…still so young and even a little confidant.  The timeless “River Man” follows, introducing lush orchestration on the record.  The tune itself is dreary and introspective, but the orchestra helps to add a little color to what would still be a fine folk song.  The atmosphere on this track is both charming and haunting, losing you in its grace, but not quite allowing you to relax. 

 

Three Hours” is the album’s showpiece.  It puts Drake’s beautiful, hypnotic guitar playing at center stage, backing it with congas, producing a distinct tribal beat.  Drake proves himself to be just as talented on guitar as his legend claims him to be, and this song is clearly a highlight.  The orchestration returns on the next two songs, “Way To Blue” and “Day Is Done.”  The former features only Nick’s voice and the orchestration, but comes off too pompous.  It does provide that melancholy, hopeless atmosphere Drake would later perfect, but it would have been far more interesting for Drake to have just played the song on guitar where his gentle voice could be better appreciated.  The latter includes Drake’s exquisite guitar picking with the orchestration merely following his lead instead of dominating the tune and creates a much more amiable tone; English folk at its finest.   

 

’Cello Song” brings back the congas and tribal beats, but predictably adds an elegant cello.  This is as pop sounding as the album gets, with a grooving middle eight and stellar coda, but somehow still remains regal with Drake gloomily humming along in tune with the cello.  The track finds a perfect balance between orchestrated arrangements and Drake’s rolling guitar, something the subsequent track badly misses.  The horns on “The Thoughts of Mary Jane” are just too cute.  If I were listening to this in my dorm at college and my friends walked in, there would be no way I’d keep it on.  The melody is lovely in its childlike innocence, but it is slightly too wimpy for my tastes, only the ending providing some punch.  Man In A Shed” follows and adds some quirky piano playing and some much needed humor to the record.  Drake sings the lyrics with a hint of a smile and the just out for a stroll, good time sound, with an excellent bass, really lightens the mood. 

 

Fruit Tree” is absolutely heartbreaking, particularly knowing Drake’s sad fate of only touching fame after he passed away:

Fame is but a fruit tree.

So very unsound

It can never flourish

‘Til its stock is in the ground

So men of fame

Can never find a way

‘Til time has flown away

Far from their dying day.                   

The orchestration here is less obtrusive and really punctuates the beauty of the melody.  Saturday Sun” closes out the album with a superb jazz piano ballad.  The music and mood are blue, and the lyrics are dismal: “Saturday’s sun has turned to Saturday’s rain.”  But Drake performs with such charm and invite that he might as well be singing “Happy Birthday”…making you want to join him in that Saturday rain and listen to him sing for another forty minutes.

 

The record’s only flaw is its overuse of orchestration on some tracks, but overall, “Five Leaves Left” is simply beautiful.  Although it did receive some critical praise at the time, Nick Drake was unable to find commercial success with this album and drastically changed his style for his sophomore effort.  Still, the atmosphere Drake is able to create along with producer Joe Boyd, arranger Robert Kirby, and engineer John Wood, is engulfing, providing an excellent starting point for his later work, giving only a hint of what was to come.

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