Nick Drake may be the most ethereal recording artist I’ve ever heard. His fleeting career — the moody, mysterious music, the remote relationship with his record company — seemed calculated to distance him from reality. Yet his hushed songs touch a rare tranquillity that approaches poetry, and when he died in 1974 at the age of 26, he left behind three albums which are gradually making him a posthumous legend. Bryter Layter is the second of these LPs to be rereleased by Island Records through its remarkable budget label, Antilles.
Drake’s melodies are seldom less than enchanting. Built around acoustic folk-jazz guitar figures and muffled percussion, they become emotionally charged when shaded by arranger Robert Kirby’s poignant, eddying strings. Drake’s impressionistic lyrics are vivid but provocatively sketchy, making them as curiously personal as phrases mumbled in sleep. They’re delivered in an airy, nearly unconscious whisper that blends as naturally into the arrangements as a breeze rippling through tall grass.
Compared to the gloomy, vinegary, autumnal Five Leaves Left and the reportedly stark Pink Moon, Drake’s second album is a relatively pleasant collection. “Bryter Layter” and “Sunday” are light, carefree flute instrumental, and the cantering Hazey Jane II” is positively brisk (though qualified by some disturbing lyrics). “Northern Sky” gently details how a loved one has enhanced his appreciation of life.
Even in his best moods, though, Drake seems to be reaching out from a position of isolation to a like soul, as in “Hazey Jane I”: “Do you feel like a remnant of something that’s past?” More characteristic is the intensely considered solitude of “Poor Boy,” “One of These Things First” (a light waltz about possibilities dismissed) and “Fly,” which features John Cale’s moaning viola.
Whether obscurely introspective or groping outward, Drake seems to be communing with a pantheistic spirit; he consistently charts this communion with stirring empathy and authenticity — but not clarity. It’s a measure of his instinct for maintaining a sense of mystery that Bryter Layter’s reflections are as ephemeral as a man’s breath on a mirror.