Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Nick Drake 1: Five Leaves Left

Nick Drake took elements of a variety of influences, from Dylan folk to English guitar, jazz to classical, yet emerged with something somewhat indescribable, something that has to be heard to be appreciated. Five Leaves Left, his debut album, is an excellent place for the curious to start, and tough to resist.
The opening song, “Time Has Told Me”, is a perfect introduction to Nick Drake. So many of the elements of what he’s about are contained in these four minutes, from the intricate picking to his trademark third-beat phrasing. It’s a deceptively hopeful song, with underpinnings of forbidding amidst the declaration that the narrator has found his soulmate. Equally mysterious is “River Man”, which lopes along in and out of C and C minor in 5/4. We hear strings for the first time, and the effect is very river-like, with sweeping and urgent yet subtle movements. “Three Hours” is almost Indian in flavor, with its droning undercurrent, alternate-tempo midsection and conga from a guy who’d one day play with the Stones. Already three songs in, we’ve heard music that is incredibly unique and different. “Way To Blue” follows, with its dramatic, somber string accompaniment that still provides something of a lift. “Day Is Done” is one of his rare songs performed in standard tuning. The song is flat out negative, with the despair and edgy regret that comes with an unfulfilled day. The strings come to a halt with a slight ritard, closing side one.
“Cello Song” starts side two, and builds a string at a time until suddenly shifting into a new theme on which the rest of the song lies. It’s similar to “Time Has Told Me” in its reassuring hopefulness to the owner of the pale, frail, strange face who he sees as far away from him, but able to lift him to a place in the cloud. “The Thoughts Of Mary Jane” is very much in the fey Donovan mode, with a shrill flute in the mix. (The Mary Jane here could be a woman, or what he was smoking; biographers lean towards the latter.) Despite its jaunty, almost vaudeville accompaniment, “Man In A Shed” is a fable as old as the hills. This may be his most blatant statement of pining, but it’s hardly the saddest. “Fruit Tree” also starts with a slowly building figure that turns into something else entirely. This rumination on fame, notoriety and lasting memory is rather profound for a 20-year-old that hadn’t become close to a star at this point. “Saturday Sun”, with its piano suggesting last call, finishes the album. He lived much of his life in a climate where it rains everyday, sometimes several times on the hour. The sun is a virtual wake-up call, with people rubbing their eyes, realizing what’s changed, what’s gone, what’s really happening. The silly couplet at the end (and you can hear him smiling through his vocal) glides though the jazzy rhythm section, and the album floats away.
Five Leaves Left is subtle, yet shows a lot of breadth and depth in its simplicity. That’s not to say it’s simple; it just is what it is and nothing is wasted. It is a nearly perfect album.

Nick Drake Five Leaves Left (1969)—

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