The first time I heard Nick Drake was on a scratchy cassette of Way to Blue and, even over the static, I fell in love with him then. Several years later, I heard this album again—this time on a CD copy of the original version—and fell in love all over again. Last night, I played this remastered version thinking that it couldn’t get any better and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
To sum it up, this remastered version just gives you more—more of everything; from clearer text in the liner notes to enhanced colors on the jacket sleeve to the finer enunciations of Nick Drake’s British accent. You get the picture. It bestows upon you the privilege of indulging in the richness of every aspect of the music by bringing out the essence of each layer of sound; from the resonant vibrations of the cello to the razor sharp articulations of the guitar strings to the oakey, intimate vocals of Drake. This is the result of 24 bit Super Bit Mapping. You can hear this on the first track, “Cello Song”, which is incidentally probably one of the best songs from both Five Leaves Left and this album. Compared to the original CD recording, this track really benefited from the overhaul. The distinction between the guitar, drums, cello and vocals is more apparent since this song consists of separate entries and different tiers of sound, but the interactions of the instruments blend together as harmoniously as mixed fruit in a blender. When Drake’s voice finally enters with “Strange face / With your eyes so pale and sincere”, his haunting voice is enough to send shivers down your spine. On “Black Eyed Dog”, you can clearly hear the tautness of the guitar strings as they are plucked. It matches the raw emotion that emits from Drake’s voice and the lyrics, “I’m growing old and I wanna go home / I’m growing old and I don’t wanna know”. It creates such a feeling of intimacy that you can imagine Drake playing right in front of you.
Admittedly, as good as it is, the re-mastering isn’t quite perfect. On “Time Has Told Me”, the electric guitar pervades the song with as much delicacy as the old bull in the china shop. There are fleeting moments when the sound is almost artificial, like it has spent too much time in the studio, and you can’t help but think that the muted, duller output of the original recording is more suited to the mystique and darkness that has come to epitomize Nick Drake and his music.
Way to Blue - An Introduction to Nick Drake is aptly named since it includes tracks from all three of Drake’s albums, as well as the album containing previously unreleased tracks, Time of No Reply. Although the songs are not presented in chronological order, it’s not hard to tell which albums father which tracks. Indeed, the albums seem autonomous in their representation of Drake’s life. Five Leaves Left (1969) is the earliest collection of songs, filled with innocence and unanswered questions. The second album, Bryter Layter (1970), has an altogether optimistic outlook, with more confidence and assurance displayed through some jazzy syncopations and lyrical melodies. The last album, Pink Moon (1972), is dark and moody, tinged with pessimism. As with any compilation, Way to Blue won’t please everyone and, in some cases, it will do nothing but irritate the purists. The selection of songs will always be subject to some criticism, but keep in mind that this is intended to be an introduction to Drake’s music, not a greatest hits compilation, and as an introduction, it does its job well enough. One personal criticism is that the collection is missing “At the Chime of a City Clock” from Bryter Layter, but it does include “Pink Moon”—the song that helped popularize Volkswagen several years ago, or rather, the song Volkswagen used that popularized Drake in this country. The album ends with “Fruit Tree”, a prophetic song from Five Leaves Left where the lyrics hit full force: “Fame is but a fruit tree / So very unsound / It can never flourish / Till its stalk is in the ground / So men of fame / Can never find a way / Till time has flown / Far from their dying day”. Retrospective of Drake’s life, this is as ironic as irony gets.
There is something here for everyone. For those unfamiliar with Nick Drake, this is the definitive introduction on one album. For those already familiar with the artist, the remastered version of this, or any of his other albums, is a renaissance of his works. You’ll hear textures and harmonies you never noticed before, and if you fell for Drake the first time, listen to this and you’ll fall for him again.