Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is Nick Drake's ‘Bryter Layter’.
As conundrums go, it’s a tough one - for devoted music fans, even tougher - and for musicians, toughest of all. Why was an album which has now achieved cult status not lauded at the time of its release? What has elevated it from languishing in record store bargain basement, to being proudly displayed in well honed record collections? From ‘no idea’ to ‘Desert Island Discs’ in nought to sixty, the mercurial nature of critical and public reaction is central to the legacy of any work - and none more so than in the case of Nick Drake’s ‘Bryter Layter’, an autumnal overture of an album which is at once vivid, reflective, and quintessentially English. But to examine its legacy, and just why it is deserving of our time and ears, we must take a trip back to the late 1960s. Bell bottom jeans and swing coats at the ready.
Cambridge, 1969. Cyclists throng the roads, college scarves flying; the bells of Great St. Mary’s clang out, whilst the River Cam meanders slowly by. Nick Drake is submerged in all of this, ostensibly studying for a degree in English literature. A product of colonial Britain (he lived in Burma as a child), public schooling, and now the stifling traditions of Oxbridge, Drake finds release in the dual pleasures of guitar and smoke - his debut album, ‘Five Leaves Left’, is named after the preemptive warning near the end of a Rizla packet. After playing a supporting slot at the Camden Roundhouse, he strolls into a record deal and accordingly strolls out of Cambridge, though the influence of that city remains plain to hear in his music.
At the time, East Anglia was a haven for aspiring troubadours. The annual Cambridge Folk Festival was inaugurated in 1965, welcoming acts including Pentangle, Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick. Pink Floyd’s 1969 album ‘Ummagumma’ included a seven minute paean to Grantchester Meadows, an area of pastureland just south of the city. Likewise, Nick Drake’s music is shaped by the topography of bleak fenland, river weed and fresh ploughed fields. He sings of the River Man, fallen leaves, the day dawning from the ground - depicting the English countryside through chords alone. Unfortunately for Drake, what is popular in rural England is not necessarily popular elsewhere - and so to 1971, ‘Bryter Layter’, and the ensuing tensions between musical self expression and thirst for public acclaim.
Put simply, ‘Bryter Layter’ is a beautiful album. It is suffused with warmth, excitement, a sense of promise. It’s the early 1970s, London’s calling: Nick Drake has escaped the rigours of academia for a leafy suburb of Camden Town, and his sense of optimism is palpable.
The opening track, instrumental Introduction, evokes the smell of cut grass warmed by slightly tipsy afternoon sun, its lush string arrangements drawn out over rippling fretwork. Everything speaks of a bright future - as Drake insists in Hazey Jane II, “Now that you’re lifting/ Your feet from the ground/ Weigh up your anchor/ And never look round”, upbeat lyrics leaping effortlessly over bobbing bassline and offbeat horns. You get the sense that he is perfectly happy making music purely for his own enjoyment, relishing the collaboration with folk luminaries such as Fairport Convention’s Dave Mattacks and Dave Pegg, and John Cale, formerly of The Velvet Underground, all of whom feature on the record.
And yet. Every artist wants to be recognised for their work. On ‘Five Leaves Left’, Drake had addressed the fickle nature of fame, comparing it to “A fruit tree/ So very unsound” and lamenting being “Forgotten while you’re here/ Remembered for a while/ A much updated ruin/ From a much outdated style”. This motif continues in ‘Bryter Layter’, betraying a wry self-awareness of being slightly out of step with popular culture. The lyrics of Hazey Jane I express this directly: “Do you feel like a remnant/ Of something that’s past/ Do you find things are moving/ Just a little too fast?”. The world was surging forward, yet Nick Drake was firmly rooted in place.
In truth, the ‘green and pleasant’ vision of England and its music was fading fast. By 1971, Drake sat slightly uncomfortably between Haight-Ashbury psychedelia, and the slow onslaught of prog and folk rock. The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sticky Fingers’, was released a month after ‘Bryter Layter’, and the dropped T, working class vibe of Jagger and Richards resonated with the public far more than the middle class accent of a sensitive songster could. Despite the defiance of Hazey Jane I (“Try to be true/ Even if it’s only in your hazey way”), the cold hard facts of album sales were hard to ignore. Though ‘Bryter Layter’ was a critical success, Drake’s aversion to performing, compounded by worsening depression, saw him refuse to tour the album. It sold fewer than 5000 copies.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Listening to ‘Bryter Layter’ 45 years after its release, it is possible to take the album entirely out of context and treat it as a stand alone work - an atmospheric blend of metaphysical lyrics, quasi-orchestral arrangement and virtuosic guitar.
Indeed it’s arguably more relevant today than it was back then - in this era of instant celebrity and stifling PR, the underlying bitterness of songs dealing candidly with fame, or the lack of it, is particularly pertinent. And of course the tragic circumstances of Drake’s suicide at the age of 26 colour modern perceptions of his work, and interpretation of his lyrics. But whether ‘Bryter Layter’ is a product of its time, or a product of its legacy, it is an album well deserving of its cult status. Time to dust off that vinyl - and let Nick Drake brighten your Northern Sky.