A Whole Long Lifetime Could Have Been The End: Bryter Layter Turns 50

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Nick Drake – Bryter Layter

Released March 6th, 1971 on Island Records

Produced by Joe Boyd

Nick Drake was a ghost for most of his life. He doesn’t exist on archival video; there are only still pictures of him, and only a few of those. He dropped out of Cambridge at the age of 20 to sign with Island Records but then spent his three-album career avoiding live performances, interviews, and promotion. He only had an apartment and a phone because a friend made him do it; when he died (or, likely but never proved, when he killed himself) in 1974 he had become a recluse living in his parent’s house, unknown to everyone. His (extremely) posthumous success is a miracle of the internet: once we started trading files via P2P we started getting hungry for things we hadn’t heard before. The (very) few people who had files of Nick Drake’s recordings entered them into the mix, and then his music started getting high-profile placements in a series of indie movies (and the Volkswagen commercial), and then…it was as though he were the great lost relic of an ancient age, summoned back to life by a technology that was indistinguishable from magic.

Bryter Layter is the second of his records. His first, Five Leaves Left, sold something like 15,000 copies at the time (although sales figures are disputed); it was enough to keep Island Records’ interest, but Drake had been pumped up by his mentors and had expected better. On this one he backed himself in the studio with members of British folk-rockers Fairport Convention as well as avant-garde composer/Velvet Underground member John Cale. Members of the Beach Boys also show up here and there on tracks. The recordings reveal a talent for composition and tone. Unlike his debut, Bryter Layter doesn’t place Drake’s voice front and center, which is a major plus for it. Drake’s voice is good, but his crippling depression and anxiety prevented him from projecting his voice like many of the showier singer-songwriters of the era. He strikes up an almost conversational tone throughout, letting his voice play among the rock rhythm section and the strings and woodwinds that keep the songs firmly grounded in British folk conventions. The result is a subdued late-night album, the kind that is perfect to play in dark underground coffeeshops that turn into bars after hours.

The album would sell less than 5,000 copies. Poor sales were driven largely by Drake’s anxiety and depression-fueled unwillingness to play live or do promotion, which made his already uncommercial music starkly less commercial. In the aftermath of the album he would retreat further into himself. Contemporary London audiences didn’t know how to take him and weren’t receptive to his wordless performances. He would remain inside his apartment, smoking incredible amounts of weed and leaving only to buy more. His sister would remember it as the turning point, where everything started to go wrong for him. His next album, 1972’s Pink Moon, was stark and short, all baroque beauty and gloom. Two years later he was dead. Twenty-five years later he was appearing in car commercials and charting in the Billboard Hot 100. Critics began retroactively heaping him with laurels, including him in conversations about the best albums ever made (Bryter Layter is in the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list) and discussing his influence on artists from the Eighties (the Cure reportedly took their name from Nick Drake line). When he died no one cared; there were no thinkpieces on his art or hot indie documentaries that charted his rise and fall, probably because there had never really been a rise to begin with. Yet now you can open up a browser and read about his second album’s fiftieth anniversary as written by some guy who came of age twenty years after he died in obscurity. The internet is a funny ol’ place.

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