Friday, April 11, 2008

Nick Drake 2: Bryter Layter

Having documented his experiences at Cambridge and the English countryside on his debut, Nick Drake turned his eye to London. What he found there was alternately enlightening and confusing.
Bryter Layter opens much like his first album, with delicate fingerpicking and warm strings. The instrumental “Introduction” has themes that will turn up two songs later; on further listening you realize the guitar stays the same, while the strings bring the actual melody, the type of thing Brian Wilson would have done. “Hazey Jane II” is the first real song, and weaker than its namesake later on the side. The breathless vocals with the car-horn brass show that he’s definitely in another place. He’s unsure of his footing, but in the second half of the song he tries to get his bearings and settle in. In “At The Chime Of A City Clock”, he’s still wandering the city streets, then chooses to “stay indoors, beneath the floors” since most people consider him “either weird or lonely”. There’s a very effective change after the second chorus, setting us up for the third, quieter chorus and the climax of the final chorus. “One Of These Things First” starts out as a meditation on karma and reincarnation, but soon turns into a list instead of a song, barely redeemed by the more effective middle section. “Hazey Jane I” comes in cascading, soon joined by the strings. It’s a very gentle song despite the urgency of the guitar, and just gorgeous all the way through.
Side two begins with the title track, another instrumental. It’s neither as dramatic nor moving as the “Introduction”, leaving one wishing for more to grab onto. “Fly” chimes in with a lovely stairstep guitar figure echoed by John Cale’s perfect viola. The words are pleading, with music that gives the sensation of falling or sinking. Notice how he strains at every “please”, and relaxes for every “now” or “come”. The only recording of Nick playing an electric guitar, the jazzy “Poor Boy” also seems to be more of a list, but the half-mocking backing vocals (also the only backing vocals in his catalog) keep the song rolling for six-plus minutes without dragging. “Northern Sky” is one of his loveliest songs, and one of the most hopeful. After all the discomfort of adjusting to the city and the people he’s met and missed, he still finds someone he thinks he can trust, wants to trust. The keyboards color the song beautifully, especially the poignant middle section. One might think it really is going to get brighter later. But “Sunday” creeps in with a hint of concern, the minor key and flute carrying this third instrumental, closing the album. A slight buildup hints at a turn for the better, then a pause, but it’s back to the sad, quiet theme from before.
Where the first album was mostly down, ending with a hint of bemusement, Bryter Layter nearly suggests that change is good, but still ending warily. The instrumentals and the similarities between songs give the mistaken impression that it just doesn’t have the same breadth and spectrum as Five Leaves Left. But it truly works better as a whole entity, and the best tracks are illuminated by those around them.

Nick Drake Bryter Layter (1970)—