Uncut: The 100 Greatest Debut Albums (2006) (number: 29)
en: Five Leaves Left [info]
Twenty years ago Nick Drake was a distinctly word-of-mouth proposition whose slim back catalogue was shared by a select few. Nowadays, thanks to championing by the likes of Paul Weller, as well as a series of books and TV and radio documentaries (cf: Radio 2's effort hosted by Brad Pitt!), Nick's a household name. This may account for the recent avalanche of 'sensitive' singer songwriters but it's hard not to be still floored by the beauty of his first album.
Discovered by Fairport Convention's Ashley Hutchings and signed to Joe Boyd's Witchseason production company Drake was pigeonholed as a 'folk' artist. Five Leaves Left, recorded on a shoestring in 1969, boasted a cast of players who had paid their dues forging the new genre of folk rock (ie: Fairport's Richard Thompson and Pentangle's Danny Thompson); but this was a whole different kettle of
Englishness, with more than a hint of jazz about it. Sung in the semi-whispered tones that betrayed no hint of ersatz rurality, these cryptic songs of reflection and emotional 'otherness' were propelled by the one thing that had attracted Boyd to Drake: His idiosyncratic open-tuned picking style "Cello Song".
Drake is often painted as a retiring man, yet he was often extremely vocal over his muse. He and Boyd initially fought over Drake's wish for a stripped back approach (which he eventually found on his last masterpiece, Pink Moon). In the end old college friend, Robert Kirby, provided orchestration that beautifully captured the yearning 'autumnal' element in the songs "Way To Blue" and "Day Is Done".
What's more, the string arrangement by Harry Robinson on "River Man" - possibly Drake's finest song - succinctly turned his Delius-meets-folk-jazz opus into something that no one had ever heard before. It's a key text for Drake fans, containing the return to nature matched against the infidelities of city life: A theme he would return to again and again, while the album title's sly reference to smoker's delights (as well as "Thoughts Of Mary Jane") showed that Drake was no stranger to the standard musician's indulgences.
Widely ignored upon its release, with hindsight it's easy to see how such ignorance conspired to make Drake a bitter man. Yet ultimately all we can do is bask in the unique vision captured here and be grateful that, for a short period, Nick Drake was able to share it with us all.