When Nick Drake died in 1974 at age 26, he left behind a trio of albums that have posthumously made him a cult favorite and contender for legendary status. To find out why, listen to Bryter Layter, the second of those LPs to be rereleased by Antilles, Island Records’ outstanding budget label.
As a vocalist, Drake seems reminiscent of Ralph “Streets of London” McTell, the early Donovan, and, to some extent, Al Stewart. But Bryter Layter‘s strikingly introspective mood has more to do with Tim Buckley and with Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks than with any of the aforementioned artists. Musically, I hear traces of everyone from Stan Getz to John Martyn.
If you detect a bit of groping in my efforts to find reference points for Drake, you’re right. Along with all first-rate artists, he makes up his own rules and produces a sound not quite like anything we’ve ever heard before.
Compared with its predecessor, at any rate, Bryter Layter establishes a relatively light-hearted ambiance. Featuring lyrical lead guitar work by Richard Thompson, for example, “Hazy Jane II” offers a wholly upbeat, invigorating melody. Equally bright is the instrumental title cut, which sounds like something I’d want to play on an early spring morning. Even those songs, however, evoke traces of Drake’s emotional desolation. And such other selections as “Fly” can be positively depressing.
I could talk at length, I suppose, about the excellence of those and the remaining individual songs. I could also talk about Robert Kirby’s mysteriously alluring arrangements and about the effusive acoustic folk/jazz guitar figures that permeate the disc. But this is an album that seems to transcend its component parts. Its essence lies not with the technical quality of the various instrumentals and vocals but with their collective ability to touch the listener directly at the same time that they appear distanced from the rest of the world. “If songs were lines in a conversation,” sings Drake at one point, “the situation would be fine.” From the evidence offered on the album, I suspect that “the situation” was far from fine. I suspect also that Drake spoke more freely to a recording microphone than he did to anyone he ever knew.
The resultant sense of intimacy has apparently escaped few listeners. In writing about Drake, Island Records’ David Sandison described “the vague feeling of intruding on someone’s phone conversation.” One reviewer called the artist’s lyrics “as curiously personal as phrases mumbled in sleep.” Another compared listening to Drake’s music to “intruding upon a private dream world in which even a murmur is indiscreet.”
Such comments may suggest something of the power of this incredibly ethereal artist, who punctuates emotional sax solos by whispering lines like “stay indoors beneath the floors . . . pray for warmth and green paper.” The reactions cited above might also partly explain why I initially considered reviewing Bryter Layter in the form of a poem. After listening to the album more times than I can remember, I’m still not sure what all of it means, but I know just how it feels.