Nick Drake’s “Bryter Layter” turns 50

by Laurie Hutcheson | Folkradio UK

Folk music was at the heart of the tumultuous late 60s and early 70s: troubadours created elaborate progressive folk; Al Stewart and Roy Harper employed diverse instrumentation; explorative basslines became ever more common; John Martyn and the Pentangle fused jazz rhythms and harmonies into hardwired folk, whilst Fairport convention produced angular, electric albums. Drake’s producer Joe Boyd was notably present, signing the prolific Incredible String Band, who along with the likes of the Third Ear Band and Quintessence developed another 70s folk direction. It was in this world of experimentation and musical fervency that Nick Drake recorded Bryter Layter.

Drake’s producers, friends and labelmates pushed at the forefront of experimentation as his iconic sound matured. But it’s easy to see him as apart or distant from this world. Even on the cover of Bryter Layter, his most collaborative work, he’s shrouded in shadow – a promise of the quiet, dark place we enter through his songs. Drake was described by his close, protective friend John Martyn as the most withdrawn person he’d ever met, whilst Nick’s long-time producers Wood and Boyd recall his hesitation to stamp his authority when recording ‘Five Leaves Left’ and his despondent frailty in the ‘Pink Moon’ sessions. Bryter Layter, however, is distinct, and with the benefit of distance that time provides, it is, I think, Drake at his most ambitious and coherent – proactively responding to the vibrant musical world around him.

A clear example of Drake’s control and steel-mindedness on Bryter Layter can be seen in his choice of musicians. Even against the influential personalities of his producers, Drake was driven by his own vision, dismissing their string arrangements. As Wood told Arthur Lubow, ‘He said he’d got his friend, Robert Kirby, who had never done anything in a recording studio.’

This personal stamp of decision making is seen as the album opens. Drake’s overture, the first of three instrumentals Nick insisted on against Boyd’s wishes, features lilting, delicate guitar swirls throughout – drawing attention among the sombre sweep of Kirby’s strings. It’s gentle crafting of a mournful yet playful veil of sound hints at mortality and loss as it scatters around.  Hazey Jane II whisks the veil back into the air, lacing it with layers of Richard Thompson’s intricate guitar. A rhythmic skip is provided by Dave Mattack and Dave Pegg, also of Fairport Convention, who appear throughout the record, enriching the albums rhythm section with the dulcet backbeat of their well-honed dialogue, evidence of Drake’s relish of the ever-expanding folk pallet. Drake later delves into what were prominent contemporary tropes (perhaps dating the album somewhat for the modern listener), with the use of Lyn Dobson’s flute on the title track and John Cale’s viola, celeste and harpsichord contributions to sprawling folk jams, Fly and Northern Sky.

Drake was an admirer of the Beach Boys, and drummer Mike Kowalski brings a crucial element to Bryter Layter, his contributions offering poignant moments of fragility. Poor boy offers another twist and change of pace; uneasiness subtly imbued with the offbeat stabs of Drake’s guitar, referencing the 60s New York jazz of Jimmy Smith. Accompanying this is a deftly frantic drumming and gospel undertow bolstered by melodic Bossa Nova phrasing. Tension heightens as Drake floats ‘where will I stay tonight,’ leading into the rhythmic solo of Chris McGregor, a force in both jazz and African music, bringing with him echoes of the harmonic inventiveness of McCoy Tyner shimmying through the piano.

The veil sweetly draped from note one remains throughout, as hints of Dylan and Van Morrison’s lilting, ethereal lyrical influences adorn the album in half-rhymes. Other American influences can perhaps be seen in some of Drake’s guitar work, the sparser arpeggiated moments, often indulged with chromatic changes and major to minor shifts, such as in One of These Things First, evoking the American musicians he became enamoured with: Peter, Paul and Mary, Joni Mitchell on Song to a Seagull, and the older folk masters such as Josh White.

This is an album brimming with influences, stripped down and reeled together in a sequence of dreams, helping Bryter Layter stand out not just among Drake’s haunting discography, but against the whole era. It is an album of contemporary decision, led by Drake.

Conversely, Drake was rarely cited as an influence in his time, adding all the more fuel to his image of doomed inertia. However, the closing song on the album, Sunday bears a startling resemblance to Bowie’s Kooks released the following year, perhaps the first of many debtors – an impact unknown by Drake himself.

Reviewers of the time slated the album’s ‘boring pace’ and ‘less than tuneful vocal performance’ as Drake failed to accompany it with publicity or live performance – and endured his second disappointing sales result. He slowly drifted into the image he’s perhaps known best for today – secluded at his parents isolated home, driving aimlessly across the countryside until he ran out of fuel; shy, unassuming and self-destructive. But Bryter Layter shows none of this later despondence, filled with understanding and influence, it’s a conscious (although failed) shot at 1970’s stardom.

Slipping at the time under the radar of culture’s fickle eye, Bryter Layter now gently transcends its dated moments, showcasing the era’s developments. It delivers in abundance what is perhaps some of folk music’s best quality, to allow us to glimpse the fleeting intangible parts of us, act as a vessel to this visceral realm – forever slipping through our fingers in the vice-like grip of the modern world.

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