Review Summary: You must hear this before you die.
There's always going to be an abundance of people in this world who want their slice of fame before they die. After all, you never really know when your life will come to an end, right? However, while I could understand a person's desire for attention and popularity, what many people never do is take it one step at a time. In many cases, instant fame has derailed once-promising careers. Remember when Susan Boyle was on top of the world after her live performance of "I Dreamed a Dream?" Most people do, but she is still pretty much gone from the public eye now because she couldn't really follow up such an explosion of popularity and expectations. Almost every American Idol winner can fall into this category as well, for that matter. On the other side of the spectrum, we've got the English singer-songwriter Nick Drake; despite dying at a very young age, he remains a glowing example of how something so small can erupt into something so large at some point down the line. In this case, his career was that "something small" and his influence is what erupted into something so massive. Even more surprising is the fact that his debut album Five Leaves Left could also be considered his magnum opus.
Five Leaves Left is what you may call the middle ground bridging his two other albums Bryter Layter and Pink Moon; you get the complexity and slightly more upbeat nature of the former, and the emotional intensity and stark moments of the latter. This combination opens the door for a lot of variety, and Drake balances every style and mood perfectly. With "Three Hours" and "Cello Song," there's a clear emphasis on his guitar ability (particularly finger-picking); with "Way to Blue" and "Fruit Tree," you get thick layers of melancholy and even nostalgia; with "River Man," there's a dreamy atmosphere created by the orchestral strings, which form a mesmerizing backdrop behind a melody played in 5/4 time; the list of different moods and sounds goes on. What makes this album work, however, is how it's all tied together. The overall atmosphere of the record is part-hopeful and part-hopeless, and the placement of each song ensures that no emotional moment is out of place. For every bleak number like the string-driven "Way to Blue," there's a sigh of relief like the bluesy closer "Saturday Sun."
Now keep in mind that there's no exceptionally happy song on here, but some are definitely more hopeful than others (unlike the majority of Pink Moon). Additionally, the album has aged gracefully unlike many of its contemporaries; by having his lyricism avoid being a product of the times and not relying on cheap gimmicks, Drake has crafted an album that could have easily been created just yesterday. It definitely helps that his backing musicians add so much to the experience, most notably Danny Thompson on the upright bass. He and the percussionists bring a sense of liveliness to certain tracks and help support the low end while Nick does his acoustic guitar work over the top; "Three Hours," in particular, benefits from the subtle chemistry between Drake's swift finger-picking and the underlying congas. There's also a distinctly baroque-sounding vibe surrounding many of the tracks, primarily due to the string arrangements in songs like "Way to Blue" and the brief "Day is Done." As I said before though, emotional and musical focus is maintained throughout the album, and the relatively short runtime makes sure anything unneeded is cut out.
Very few albums have reached the perfection of Five Leaves Left. Its instrumentation, lyricism, atmosphere, and overall balance are executed brilliantly. It's sad that Nick Drake died so early, and with only three albums under his belt; who knows what other work he could have created? Despite initially low sales, Drake's influence has surely spread further than he probably would have ever expected. And you know what? He really does deserve to be recognized. If he was alive today, I'm sure he'd look back on the reception of his three classics and be smiling. If you haven't listened to this album yet, be prepared for something truly special. Five Leaves Left is a folk masterpiece and an experience that you won't be forgetting anytime soon.