Pete Paphides on an album that lays bare the agonies of young people in a materialist age
There’s actually no such thing as an uncool Nick Drake album. But if there were, it would – by popular demand – be Bryter Layter. That’s according to a narrative of Drake’s brief career that posits his second album as a flawed bid for pop success; the one where he muted his instincts and deferred to his manager Joe Boyd, who selected several of the musicians who played on the record.
According to this narrative, anyone seeking the real Nick Drake should head to the albums either side of Bryter Layter. You might choose Five Leaves Left, the title of which acts as an inadvertent intimation of Drake’s brief time on this planet. In recent years, though, connoisseurs have zoned in on the stark confessional that is Drake’s final album, Pink Moon. With no other musicians featured on the record, many fans see Pink Moon as the purest artistic representation of its creator.
All of which might be true, but if you were to ask me to name Drake’s most straight-up beautiful album, I’d have no hesitation in plumping for the misunderstood middle child of his canon. Would I have said the same back in my undergraduate days in a hall of residence in West Wales, where, between the hours of 1am and 6am, the turntable belonged exclusively to Saint Nick? Probably not, but I would have been lying. I always adored Bryter Layter. I adored it for reasons I struggled to articulate until Ian McDonald – best known for his superlative Beatles book Revolution In The Head – shone his analytical light on Drake’s legacy. “Can it be,” he asked, “that the materialist worldview, in which there is no intrinsic meaning, is murdering our souls?”
The phrasing may have been a mite melodramatic, although it ought to be noted that three years after McDonald’s piece ran in Mojo, its author took his own life. And, indeed, I think it’s this very question in several iterations that runs through Bryter Layter.
On ‘Hazey Jane II’, Drake sings, “What will happen in the morning when the world it gets so crowded that you can’t look out your window in the morning?” If you want to talk about prescience, for me this is when Drake’s songwriting really tapped into the sensory overload that life in a big city can confer upon a young mind. Indeed, the sense of having to manage both present and future at the same time is something that bears heavily on young people in 2021 – a trend borne out by the vertical spike in admissions to adolescent mental health units in recent years.
There were lots of features of 21st-century life that Nick Drake didn’t have to worry about, but what’s really striking about the songs on Bryter Layter is just how much of then applies to now. Drake was fresh out of Cambridge, an ex-public schoolboy getting to grips with a non-institutionalised routine for the first time. First world problems, perhaps, but it really doesn’t matter how Drake came to ask the questions he asks on Bryter Layter. What matters is that these are still questions worth asking: “Do you feel like a remnant of something that’s passed?” inquires ‘Hazey Jane I’. “Do you find things are moving just a little too fast?”
Like everything that surrounds it on Bryter Layter, what takes your breath away is the ensemble work around Drake: not just Robert Kirby’s empathetic arrangements, but myriad sensational turns from assorted session musicians. And far from compromising Drake’s vision, it’s these turns that, for me, give Bryter Layter an edge over the two either side of it. And for that we need to acknowledge the person who, for some, remains the villain of the piece: Drake’s producer and manager Joe Boyd.
It was Boyd who had the idea of enlisting jazz musicians to feel their way around Drake’s performances: South African pianist Chris McGregor on ‘Poor Boy’, spinning an electrifying improvisation around what American musician and Drake scholar Robin Frederick called the “urban gospel” of P.P. Arnold and Doris Troy’s vocals. On ‘At The Chime Of A City Clock’, a song about drifting in the ceaseless tidal flow of modern life, Ray Warleigh’s saxophone solo is scintillating, releasing a luminous vapour trail into the magic-hour half-light of Kirby’s arrangement.
We’ve also got Boyd to thank for John Cale’s celeste and piano work on the transcendent ‘Northern Sky’, and for the contribution of touring Beach Boys bassist Ed Carter on ‘One Of These Things First’. The four-note phrase Carter plays as Drake sings “I could have been / One of these things first,” nudges the whole thing into the realm of perfection.
Perhaps for some fans, it feels disloyal to Drake’s memory to choose the record that features proportionately less of him than his other albums. But let’s not forget the “obstinate perfectionism” – his sister Gabrielle’s words – that meant he didn’t let anything pass with which he wasn’t totally satisfied.
By allowing other musicians in, Nick Drake created an album whose continuing musical relevance matches his lyrical prescience. And so, in an age of genre-fluidity and increased understanding of mental well-being, Bryter Layter has never been a more indispensable companion.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill
Pete Paphides is a music critic and author. His most recent book is Broken Greek