Five decades later, Five Leaves Left still resonates with a beauty and grace that defies age
Nick Drake’s first album, Five Leaves Left, was released 50 years ago this month.
Each of his albums is so different; his second, Bryter Layter, sounds markedly like an early 1970s folk album, and his third, Pink Moon, is a soft keen from the blackest pit of mental illness. But Five Leaves Left feels timeless and ageless, its arrangements and melodies free of trendy flourishes or instruments that place it in a particular decade. It’s rich, soothing, aching music: Drake’s extended consonants humming across the measures, his intent guitar technique negotiating flamenco speed in a British character, the strings swelling and falling like breezes, quiet congas keeping time.
I have no memory of how I learned about Nick Drake. I know that it happened during high school, and I’m certain it happened prior to the gorgeous Volkswagen commercial that featured “Pink Moon.” Whatever the source, I went right to my local music store (Record & Tape Traders in Severna Park, Maryland) and purchased Fruit Tree, a box set of all three of Drake’s studio albums packaged with a CD of rarities and a booklet that told his story.
This was the mid-nineties, when I was a complete musichead: addicted to Rolling Stone but not edgy enough for Spin, partial to Beck and Green Day and reeling from Nirvana. In retrospect, it was an odd moment for me to discover Nick Drake, the quietest, gentlest creature ever to cut a record in this world. Listening to Drake requires patience and concentration—not qualities that teenagers in the 1990s had in great quantities.
The first time I listened to the album, I started it again immediately. I put headphones on and listened intently. I’m listening now, as I write this, and have listened thousands of times in between. The reassuring swing of the guitar opening in “Time Has Told Me” relaxes my shoulders. The two tempos of “Three Hours” fascinate me. I can’t decide whether the choice to hang loud strings over Nick’s wavering reed of a voice on “Way to Blue” is good or bad. And “Fruit Tree” forces me to hold very still and do nothing but listen, absorb it. My cells fill with it, with the simplicity of a voice, a guitar, a handful of instruments telling me without drama or room for negotiation that life will end, for all of us, irrevocably.
There are other artists out there somewhat like Nick Drake. Paul Simon leaps to mind, with a similar sensitivity and acoustic technique, as does Leonard Cohen, the deepest thinker in music. Tim Buckley, who lived and died just one year on either side of Drake. Elliott Smith, who was nearly as sad. But most solo artists possess some degree of self-aggrandizement, some wish to share themselves with an audience. Drake was a painfully introverted figure, a singer who walked offstage mid-song, who, at certain concerts, spent many awkward minutes silently retuning his guitar rather than interacting with the people who came to listen to him. Perhaps this is why his delivery is so intimate, his voice just millimeters from inaudible. A singer who truly wanted an audience would have overdone “River Man,” would have made “Thoughts of Mary Jane” unforgivable pop. Instead, he caught hold of something fine and unrepeatable and saved it for us to hear.
For many years, I have misheard the last lines of “Fruit Tree.” I thought it went “They’ll not know / That you were here when you’re gone,” because that seemed to be what the song was saying, and what Drake’s life and career were saying: we will all disappear. He made records for barely five years before he died, at 26, of an overdose of antidepressants. His albums sold poorly, and he made almost no impression on the larger world while he was here.
Island Records, bless them, persisted in keeping his albums on their roster when other labels would have let them pass out of print. Starting in the mid-1980s, Drake found an audience. That audience continues to grow—thanks, Volkswagen—and is now many, many times the size of the one that listened to Drake while he was alive. He could easily have vanished without a trace, but instead, he has remained. So the true lyrics of “Fruit Tree” are appropriate: “They’ll all know / That you were here when you’re gone.”
STREAMING: Five Leaves Left