Rarely has an album been recorded that is more tragically self-aware than Nick Drake's Five Leaves Left. The title refers to the marking on the inside of a packet of cigarette rolling papers that indicates only five more remain; a prophetic title indeed, given that five years after the release of his stunning debut album, Nick Drake would be dead at the age of 26.
Nick Drake was more of a poet than a performer, shy and introverted, and terrified of playing before an audience. It is lucky and ironic that during one of his infrequent gigs he was spotted by a member of established English folksters, Fairport Convention, who convinced their producer Joe Boyd to give Drake a listen. Boyd was impressed enough with Drake's demo tape that he signed him to a contract in 1968 and set to working with Nick on his debut album.
The resulting record has since come to be regarded as a highly influential masterwork, despite the fact that it was virtually ignored by the public upon its release. Drake's songs do not fit neatly into any category that was recognizable at the time; he seemed to have more in common with romantic poets like Byron or Shelley than with his musical peers, mostly folk revivalists and celtic rockers.
A feeling of wistfulness and beautiful melancholy pervades Five Leaves Left, leaving the listener with a longing for the peaceful simplicity of the English countryside that was Drake's refuge from the confusing cacophony of the big city and the pressures of modern life. The lush string arrangements of Robert Kirby perfectly complement Drake's world-weary vocals and hauntingly evocative lyrics. The song "Fruit Tree" offers a perfect example of Drake's gift for combining pastoral imagery with piercing self revelation: "Fame is but a fruit tree / so very unsound / it can never flourish / until its stalk is in the ground / So men of fame / who never find the way / until time has flown / far from their dying day."
A far cry from the attitude of cynicism and guarded emotion that pervades much of today's music, Five Leaves Left stands as a naked testament to the enduring power of human emotion and the beauty and cruelty of the world we all inhabit.
If you like Nick Drake, check out:
Beth Orton Central Reservation
Joni Mitchell Blue
Van Morrison Astral Weeks
Smog Dongs Of Sevotion
Richard Thompson Mock Tudor
Pinetop Seven Rigging The Toplights
Leonard Cohen Greatest Hits
Sandy Denny Gold Dust - Live At The Royalty
Michael Head & The Strands The Magical World of The Strands
-- Dave Rosen