“I never felt magic as crazy as this,” Nick Drake sang in “Northern Sky,” from Bryter Later, and the sentiment served as a perfect summation of this ethereal and magnificent album. With it’s unhinged flutes and wacka-wha guitars, the album could only have been made in the early seventies. It’s impact, however, transcends time. But so does Nick Drake, who released only three studio albums during his lifetime: the acoustic and relaxed debut, Five Leaves Left, in 1969, Bryter Later, in 1970, and the hallow and haunting, Pink Moon, in 1972. Pink Moon is perhaps the best known of the three, due to the title song made famous in the 2000 Volkswagen commercial, Five Leaves Left contains Drake’s best and most otherworldly song, “River Man,” and Bryter Later, which sounds the most dated, is, ironically, his very best.
Never known for his vocal prowess, on Bryter Later, Drake sings using his “head voice,” and his lyrics are playful and mind-bendingly imaginative, almost like he’s describing a series of dreams, sometimes placing himself in the middle of the action and sometimes off to the side, a distant, lonely observer. In “One Of These Things First,” Drake sings, “I could be here and now. I would be, I should be…but how?” Or on “Hazey Jane I,” he sings, “Do you feel like a remnant of something that’s passed? Do you find things are moving just a little too fast?” Drake describes perfectly those moments when you feel completely out of sync with everyone and everything around you.
Quiet and despondent in personality, Drake was known for crafting indelible, alternate-key pop tunes that linger long after the turntable stops spinning, and everything you’ve heard about Nick Drake, sonically, is represented on Bryter Layter: stirring tunes, deliciously morose lyrics, and Drake’s opaque, raspy vocal style. But conversely, the album also has an upbeat and cheerful side that hinted at personal optimism. In the liner notes for the Nick Drake boxed set, Fruit Tree, producer, Joe Boyd, lists Bryter Layter as “the one perfect album” they made. “When it was released, Boyd said it was a masterpiece, that it would make Nick Drake a star. But he was wrong; the album didn’t sell. And Nick Drake was crushed.”
This is the tragic part, because when measured against other trifle from 1970 that sold by the millions (e.g., “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” “Everything Is Beautiful” or “Julie, Do Ya Love Me?” to name but a few), it’s nothing less than criminal that Bryter Later went unnoticed by pop radio. Some suggest it was this failure that led Drake to create his bitter and terse final album. Others suggest it was the final blow that led to his untimely death.
But I like to imagine that Bryter Later held evidence that, in another context and in another set of circumstances, things may have turned out very differently for Drake. His music, often billed “depressing,” has been described as the progenitor to the likes of Jeff Buckley and Elliot Smith, but on Bryter Later, something different was in Drake’s tea. The songs on this album hinted at something unanticipated bubbling under Drake’s normally melancholy surface: hope.