Two years into my eleven-year MVC stint and the influences from work colleagues were coming thick and fast. Geoff had a big thing for folk: Fairport Convention in particular including members Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny. He was also a big fan of Nick Drake who was unfamiliar to me at the time, though thanks to Geoff that was about to change.
I can’t remember if a particular album was recommended. I’m sure I checked out all three but it was Bryter Layter that I instantly gravitated to. Nick Drake’s personal story is so despairing it’s hard to ignore, though at the time I’m sure I had no idea of his isolation, depression or tragically early death. However, it was quickly apparent that he wasn’t the most contented soul. Nick Drake quickly led me to Tim Hardin and John Martyn, two others who constantly battled their demons yet through it all wrote and made some incredibly beautiful music.
Bryter Layter oozes refined and exquisite melancholy. Its occasionally upbeat jazzy ripple coupled with dreamy flute, sax and strings are pure bliss, but add Drake’s aching vocals and wistful, contemplative lyrics and you have a deeply beautiful album. That perfect melancholy drifts through the opening Introduction before the tempo lifts with the positively upbeat, lyrically perturbing Hazey Jane II. I’d like to think that the more upbeat musicality on Bryter Layter compared to Five Leaves Left and Pink Moon reflects a sense of optimism and positivity, but such was his reclusiveness that remains as much a mystery as the provocative lyrics.
The harmony between Drake’s faintly pleading vocals and John Cale’s viola on Fly tears me up, before another jazzy jaunt strolls along with Drake’s whispered, vivid lyrics on Poor Boy. Then, as near to musical utopia as is possible:
“I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky.”
Northern Sky is lyrical and musical perfection. You know it comes from a fragile place, which adds everything to its stunningly poetic plea for love, and with John Cale’s sprinkling of magic musical dust it encapsulates everything that’s beautiful about Nick Drake. Bryter Layter sold in pitiful numbers at its time of release. Nick Drake didn’t want to play the game, but his delicate, mythical entity has grown to shine as brightly as his music.