Review Summary: Young, Gifted and Doomed (part 2)
Nick Drake was a rare talent. He had an ability to write songs that sound as they were written 400 years ago. His self taught guitar playing is also very original, and hard to imitate. And his voice is insecure, isolated and tender.
He reminds me of one great American songwriter but not so good singer: John Phillips, the guy who wrote «California Dreamin'» and the other hits with The Mamas and the Papas. He also released a solo album in 1970. Unsure of his singing, he buried his lead vocals in the mix. Phillips' record flopped despite there was no filler, unlike all The Mamas and the Papas albums. But John Phillips had already had Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Mama Cass, great singers. Drake had himself, great, great songs, producer Joe Boyd, and a few good people in Island Records who believed in him. If Nick was alive today, I think he wouldn't get a record deal, because the music business is business more than ever and no one want to give a chance to someone who has self-confidence in quantity Nick had.
But people in Island believed in Nick. Although his debut had sold circa 5 000 copies, they decided to give more money for production. They added "proper" rhythm section (bass and drums), brass section and strings to Drake's sound. And that gave more colors to already great Drake's songs, not to forget his unique guitar playing. And who played on "Bryter Layter"? Well, creme de la creme, Richard Thompson (later successful solo artist), Danny Thompson, John Cale (ex-Velvet Underground), to name a few. Somewhere it is possible to hear traces of funk, jazz as well as folk. Also, his sophomore effort is poppier and warmer than the debut.
After a lovely one minute and half long «Introduction», the album kicks off with «Hazey Jane II», a friendly, up-tempo number, great single potential. Then comes «At The Chime of a City Clock», which sounds like «Forever Changes» outtake (in the best possible sense) and beautiful jazz ballad «One Of These Things First» - I believe that's Drake at his most personal and beautiful, along with the song «Fly». "Fly" has one of the most romantic and gentle melodies you'll ever hear. And great intro. «Poor Boy» is a little bit overlong, but guest vocalists added some dynamics. "Sunday" is not bad but too predictable instrumental, but "Nothern Sky" is a real treat (vibraphone and piano parts are particularly stunning).
The sales? They were even worse than "Five Leaves Left".
The problem is in Drake's voice: it is half whispering-half singing, smoky, isolated, insecure, maybe distant and not so convincing as his guitar playing or songs. Sometimes I have the feeling that his singing is too pedestrian for such delicate instrumental tracks. OK, he is better singer than, say, Lou Reed, but I think he sang on his records just because he couldn't find anyone else who'd do it instead of him. Maybe «Bryter Layter» should be done the same way Gram Parsons did his solo albums: to do duet with some great female vocalists. In Drake's case, I think Sandy Denny would have suited him well. Or Rod Stewart. Imagine «Fly», a great intro, strings, guitar and piano shining, with Stewart singing «Please...» part and Drake singing the quieter part. Or «Hazey Jane II» with Scott Walker. Maybe that would have given him a boost.
Another problem, well, Nick Drake was nerd. That's fine by me, sometimes I think that I am a nerd. But the first nerd who made it cool and funny was Elvis Costello, who released his debut in 1977, a punk Year Zero. Drake's songs were just too introverted for mainstream, and college rock wasn't existed in a way it did in 1980s and later. Also Drake didn't like to perform. He had stage fright, so he was without hit singles, had virtually no live performances, and there was no MTV or video spots to promote artists (Well, I can't imagine Nick Drake on MTV but no one knows).
Happily, his star would rise again, first he had been discovered by Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Robert Smith (The Cure), among others, and second, 26 years after his death, in 2000, after VW used his sparse song called «Pink Moon» for commercial. In two months period, he sold more records than he did in his lifetime.