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My #RSD13: Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter

With Nick Drake’s self-titled record – a US-only compilation of tracks from the much-revered British folkie’s first two albums, Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter – getting a Record Store Day reissue this weekend, Alex Cull acknowledges the legacy of what could be Drake’s most influential release: 1970’s Bryter Layter, which is also seeing a re-release this month.

A confession: Bryter Layter was not the first Nick Drake record I ever heard, nor does it stand as my favourite – both of those accolades belong to its 1972 follow-up: the starker, darker, Pink Moon. What it is, though, is quite possibly the most accurate portrayal of Drake as a working musician ever held down to vinyl. In contrast to 1969’s shambling Five Leaves Left or the world-wearier Pink Moon, Bryter finds Drake balanced precariously between the optimism of a young musician given the opportunity to collaborate with his heroes – members of The Beach Boys, Fairport Convention and The Velvet Underground’s John Cale all lend a hand here – and the uncomfortable realisations about himself, and the world around him, that would eventually lead to his untimely death in 1974.

Listening to Drake’s records in a modern context, it’s hard not to hear the profound impact they’ve had on the ears of a generation of songwriters. Furthermore, it’s possible to trace a direct lineage from Drake – alongside likeminded peers such as Vashti Bunyan and, in a more electric sense, Fairport Convention – through to the hermetic poets (Daniel Johnston), confessional introverts (Elliott Smith) and wayward folkie-experimentalists (Bon Iver), that have gained acclaim beyond anything the lonely British musician achieved in his lifetime. That’s part of the romance of sitting down and spending time with one of Drake’s albums, though; you’re completely aware that at the time he softly crooned these wonderful secrets into a microphone, they were exactly that: secrets.

If Five Leaves Left was Drake’s pastoral summer record, and Pink Moon, the polar opposite – an unadorned winter of plaintive ruminations over the state he found himself in – then Bryter Layter is the hinterland. His autumn, if you will. It’s on ‘One of These Things First’, the album’s most recognisable song – its tumbling guitar figure and lofty piano arpeggios having featured prominently on many a film soundtrack, from The Garden State to Seven Pounds – that Bryter begins to take a turn for the wiser, if not yet full-on cynical. On it, Drake declares all the things he could have been – a sailor, a cook, a lover, a friend – with the emphasis being on that possible, but unlikely, ‘could’. While there’s still an element of chance to it, it lacks the certainty of a solid ‘can’; it has a proviso of doubt attached to it, one that’s a telling sign of Drake’s lack of confidence in himself. It’s a perfect summary of him as both a musician and a person: he was precociously gifted as a guitarist, perhaps even virtuosic in his own unique style, and yet he was rarely seen performing live. It marks a core divide between how Drake saw himself and how others, in years to come at least, would see him.

As ‘One of These Things First’ reaches its chorus though, Drake truly begins to let the hopelessness in. When he – perhaps rhetorically – asks how he could be “one of these things”, he’s virtually given up: he doesn’t expect anyone to know the answer, least of all himself. The key here though, is that he’s still willing to ask; there is still a shred of prospect, however dimmed it is. Pink Moon, by comparison, feels permanently stamped with a caveat of caution – its title, which alludes to a sign of menace ahead, is telling enough of that. Here, though, he still holds on to a belief – however stamped out by the world at large – that things might just get brighter later.

- Alex Cull

Bryter Layter is reissued in remastered form on April 15 through Island.

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