People love to talk about their proverbial perfect desert-island albums. Quality-wise, Nick Drake’s Bryter Later could easily be on my list, but that description doesn’t sound quite right.
I imagine desert islands as being dry and bright and isolated places; this album’s much more suitable for rainy afternoons holed up in the condo. “Stay indoors beneath the floors, talk with neighbors only; the games you play make people say you’re either weird or lonely,” Drake sings on “At the Chime of a City Clock.” The music, too, amplifies the urban cabin fever vibe; the arrangements are jazzy but melancholy, with a wonderful blend of wise guitar and playful piano and sad strings and resigned horns. (The horns are crucial; they help make Bryter Later that rarest of things—an excellent album that doesn’t quite sound like any others.) Drake’s voice, soothing and hushed and cool, complements the songs perfectly, but there are great instrumental pieces, too, bisecting and bookending the album.
Five Leaves Left was my first—and first favorite—Nick Drake album, but now I find myself listening to this one far more frequently. There’s still plenty of melancholy here; on Hazey Jane I, for instance, Drake asks: “Do you like what you’re doing? Would you do it some more? Only to stop once and wonder what you’re doing it for?” But all in all, the relentless depression’s been tempered quite a bit. That album’s vibe is I-want-to-kill-myself-because-life’s-pointless-and-I-won’t-be-noticed-otherwise; this is more like I-don’t-quite-feel-like-going-to-the-grocery-store-today.
And that resignation’s leavened, too, with a cautious optimism—today may be shot, but tomorrow’s at least worth sticking around for. “Please give me a second grace; please give me a second face,” Drake sings on “Fly.” And then on “Northern Sky,” he asks: “Would you love me for my money? Would you love me for my mind? Would you love me through the winter? Would you love me until I die? If you would and you could, then come blow your horn for me.” It’s a lovely song, but the pronouns alone are significant; on both this and “Five Leaves Left” there are times when the “you” refers to Drake himself, and the songs become mere mirrors, places for tortured artistic sensitivity and introspection, but on this, there are far more moments where the “you” is someone else. So Drake is at least spending less time gazing into mirrors and more time looking out windows, looking out from the darkened apartment at the faces in the city, searching for a connection with someone who can end the isolation.