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
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.
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.
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.
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.
is absolutely heartbreaking, particularly knowing Drake’s sad fate of only touching fame after he passed away:
is but a fruit tree.
can never flourish
its stock is in the ground
men of fame
never find a way
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.