Sunday, November 30, 2014

Nick Drake - Five Leaves Left (1969)

Nick Drake is a cult figure.  A solitary singer-songwriter who was as inventive with his music as with his lyrics, he was a troubled young man who was prone to depression.  Drake enjoyed little popularity when he was alive but has been rediscovered since his death from an overdose of amitriptyline in November 1974 at the age of 26.  His songs convey numerous feelings and thoughts with an economy of words and music while being amazingly deep and introspective.
Five Leaves Left, his first album from 1969, is an astonishing debut.  Drake seemed wise beyond his years, yet there's also a childlike sense of wonder and bewilderment that pulses under the surface.  The music is dry and low-key, from Drake's own pointed acoustic guitar lines to Robert Kirby's stately string arrangements, anchored by light percussion and sympathetic backing from folk-rock stalwarts Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention on electric guitar and Pentagle's Danny Thompson (no relation) on bass, plus Paul Harris (later of Stephen Stills' group Manassas) on piano.  Anchoring all of this is Drake's voice, a muted, sensitive instrument all its own that expresses joy and pain in its quiet yet moody subtlety.
On Five Leaves Left, Drake accepts the world as a place where beauty and contentment are often fleeting; in songs like "River Man" and "Cello Song," he wistfully ponders the meaning of freedom and whether or not it's even possible to genuinely experience it, while "The Thoughts of Mary Jane" uses lightness and sweetness to express a desire to understand and relate to others.  Drake is well aware in his music of futility and alienation; a hurried sense of desperation permeates the lost souls who seek comforts in "Three Hours," while "Saturday Sun," with its light vibraphone and with Drake's own piano, captures a very temporary moment of joy in the activities of weekenders out to enjoy the weather.  The music of "Saturday Sun" is almost a portent of growing clouds on the horizon, just the the thudding notes of "Man In a Shed" punctuate the rain falling on a shed dweller's crumbling abode while he seeks help from a girl who might appreciate basic living in comparison to her large house.     
Drake accepts death as a part of life in the starkest and most direct terms, lamenting the finality of unfinished lives on "Day Is Done," but on Five Leaves Left, there's always appreciation for what is available in his own life.  The opening cut, "Time Has Told Me," is probably one of the most optimistic songs in British folk rock; Drake welcomes a companion's devotion, however flawed and uneven it may be, while Richard Thompson's guitar adds bite to Drake's overall restlessness.  Drake sounds happy and eager to accept what he has and disavow what he cannot yet acquire, as "someday our ocean will find its shore."  As clear-minded as it is, though, "Time Has Told Me" sounds like it could have been a prophecy for the five years - like five leaves - left in Drake's own life when this was released.  It wouldn't get much better for Drake than this. 

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