Review Summary: "I've been a long time that I've wandered through the people I have known."Bryter Layter
is often considered the black sheep of Nick Drake’s discography because of its more accessible and upbeat nature. I suppose it’s not hard to see why this is the case on a surface level; after all, we’re talking about a man whose most acclaimed piece of work is one of the most intimate and barebones folk albums you’re likely to find. But is it really so bad to hear the other side of the dynamic spectrum? Yes, Bryter Layter
is a bit poppier. Yes, it’s very lavishly orchestrated and densely arranged. In fact, Nick Drake himself intended to approach the project with The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds
in mind, if that’s any indication as to how we got these results. Regardless, the true core of this record remains the same: Nick Drake and his elegant guitar playing. The intro sets the tone perfectly: you’re listening to his signature acoustic folk, humble and organic, but with a thick coat of string accompaniment slathered on top. This opener is even a bit deceptive, coming off as incredibly uplifting and lacking the typical melancholy that defines Drake’s work. But fear not, as the singer-songwriter still exhibits enough of his trademark introspection and moodiness for Bryter Layter
to be easily identified as another facet of his recognizable sound.
It may not be immediately evident, but one thing that sets Bryter Layter
apart from Drake’s other two releases is the distinct urban flavor that defines it. There are more depictions of street and city life, and prominent touches of jazz-inflected songwriting add more color to the beautiful acoustic framework that Drake himself provides. The affair is more representative of walking down an alleyway on a chilly autumn day, especially in its ability to capture both loneliness and quiet solitude with its backing instrumentals. One can hear Drake’s intent to steer himself away from the sunny (still melancholic, of course, but sunny nonetheless) pastoral atmosphere of Five Leaves Left
to experiment with some new sounds and textures. Frankly, the results are often quite stunning; the tools the singer-songwriter employs to fill in the empty spaces really lead the listener to wonder what else he could have done if he’d lived longer. From the soulful backing choir of the bluesy “Poor Boy,” to the emotionally gripping symphonic flair of “Hazey Jane I,” to the forlorn saxophone wailing of “At the Chime of a City Clock” (and “Poor Boy” for that matter), to the quaint flute soloing of “Sunday,” to the fantastic jazz-driven piano work that dominates “One of These Things First,” there’s a wide array of ways that Drake is able to flex his creative muscle. Sure, a few tunes get a bit too cheesy and dated - “Hazey Jane II,” as I mentioned, may be the prime example - and a song like “Fly” may wear its Pet Sounds influence a bit too proudly, but regardless, the highlights on Bryter Layter
are some of the best highs in Drake’s tragically miniscule body of work.
I find it a tad strange that Bryter Layter
doesn’t often receive the acclaim of the albums that sandwich it. Granted, it’s still very well received - all three of Nick Drake’s records have been considered at least excellent in the retrospective opinion of the public - but much of the material on the album easily measures up with the rest of his career. What’s always been fascinating to me is the fact that every one of Drake’s albums brings out a different field of his songwriting ability and emotional state. Five Leaves Left
is the sound of a quiet summer in the countryside, Bryter Layter
is the sound of a stroll in the city, and Pink Moon
is the sound of an isolated night in the forest with one lone acoustic guitar. Whatever your mood or preference may dictate, there’s probably something that Nick Drake has written that caters or appeals to it; as for me, I believe Bryter Layter
earns its spot as another gem among the three brilliant masterpieces by one of folk music’s most tragic protagonists.