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2023 Albums Thing 113 - Nick Drake “Five Leaves Left”

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My route to Nick Drake started fairly recently, only when I opened the shop in fact. Almost as soon as we opened people started talking about and asking for “Pink Moon” (which we will come to presently) so I thought I’d better find out about him. Then someone offered me a 1st pressing of that record which was instantly snapped up by my friend Sally as a birthday present for her brother (lucky bro’). In the meantime I’d had a listen, I was smitten.

If you don’t know of Nick Drake he was a singer-songwriter and gifted (acoustic) guitar player. Born in Burma but lived from the age of 2 in Tanworth-in-Arden just south of Birmingham. He made only 3 albums and sadly died from an overdose of a prescription anti-depressant at the age of just 26. The official verdict at his inquest was suicide and although some family and friends have disputed this there is a widely held belief that, whether his death was accidental or otherwise, due to his illness Nick Drake had "given up on life". A sad story indeed.

“Five Leaves Left” (the legend imprinted on a certain brand of cigarette rolling papers when you had five leaves left) was recorded in 1968. It was produced by Joe Boyd (Fairport Convention) and features the Fairport’s Richard Thompson on guitar and Pentangle’s Danny Thompson on Bass. It’s a very intimate album. Drake’s playing and singing style give this mental image of a man wrapped around his guitar delivering breathy vocals into a microphone into which he is leaning closely, or at least it gives me that image. There’s an air of, not sadness, but something similar, melancholy perhaps, about the whole record. I’ve seen it described as Pastoral and Baroque but melancholy fits better for me. However, in that mental image of Nick playing it always feels like a little satisfied smile is just playing on his face.

Nick Drake’s guitar playing is intricate and rhythmically hypnotic, but not flashy. His vocal style is quiet, gentle and breathy. Producer Joe Boyd thought recording Nick’s songs presented a challenge and if they could do it right then it would make a very special album. It’s a very sparse production, very dry, the focus is Nick’s playing, voice and of course the songs.

The first two songs are as good an introduction to Nick Drake as I can think of. “Time Has Told Me” features the two Thompson’s we mentioned earlier, you absolutely know it’s Richard as soon as he starts playing, if you are in any way familiar with Fairport Convention it’s unmistakable, and Danny is Jazz-ing away in the back ground. “Riverman” is doused in that feeling of melancholy and Nick’s guitar is augmented with a beautiful, understated string arrangement. 

Elsewhere, on “Way To Blue” Drake’s voice is so upfront in the mix it feels like he’s in the room with you. “Cello Song” features an hypnotically circular guitar part and a vocal melody that traps you in a headlock. “Man In A Shed” is about as “rocking” as this record gets and my love of the book “Men And Their Sheds” sold me on this one immediately. The closing “Saturday Sun” is just plain gorgeous and is enhanced by drummer Tristam Fry doubling on Vibraphone.

“Five Leaves Left” is a beautiful, beautiful record made by a supremely talented man. Its lack of sales may well have been due to Drake’s reluctance to tour and consequently Island’s reluctance to promote it too heavily. His music wasn’t widely known while he was alive but Nick Drake’s star has risen in the years since his passing and he is now reverently cited by the likes of Kate Bush, Paul Weller, Beck and Robyn Hitchcock. 

If you know you know and if you don’t, well, then you should.


Time Has Told Me - https://youtu.be/G8SmkwS82u4

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