Counterbalance No. 160: Nick Drake’s ‘Five Leaves Left’

Betty came by on her way, said she had a word to say about things today and fallen leaves, not to mention the 160th most acclaimed album of all time. A pastoral touchstone is this week's Counterbalance.
Nick Drake
Five Leaves Left

Klinger: During his all-too-short life, Nick Drake sold scant few records and barely toured. His artistic stature since his death in 1974, though, has grown immensely, and the three albums he released are well-ensconced in the canon. Five Leaves Left, his 1969 debut, marks his first appearance on The Great List, but all three of his LPs released during his lifetime appear in the Top 300.

For all that, though, I get the sense that Drake’s legacy is somewhat muddled. Given the fact that countless people first became aware of his work through a curiously introspective 1990s Volkswagen commercial, and countless others first heard him through his reputation as a “potentially suicidal depressive” (to quote Nick Hornby), we might have a hard time assessing him as he was when he was alive—to see the sturdy oaks and prickly pines for the serene forest. Does that make sense, Mendelsohn, or has the pastoral folksiness of Nick Drake’s music made me lose my perspicacity?

Mendelsohn: Drake is an interesting case — a true cult figure in the music world. He was virtually unknown during his short career and if it weren’t for a couple of ardent supporters, one of whom happened to get a job at Island Records with enough sway to re-release Drake’s albums, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. There was really no initial critical response to Drake’s Five Leaves Left and commercial sales were nearly nonexistent. This wasn’t helped by Drake’s refusal to tour behind his records or do the necessary press to promote them. But then, the man was dealing with near-crippling mental illness that eventually — directly or indirectly — led to his untimely death.

As time passed the posthumous figure of Drake has only grown larger, starting with a handful of dedicated fans, which turned into influence within the music world — most notably with the Cure and R.E.M., and eventually ended in a well-produced commercial spot that effectively reintroduced Nick Drake to listeners, pushing his music up the charts, and I imagine, into the upper reaches of the Great List.

Sometimes I wish the Great List were as old as the canon itself, just so we could go back and see how some of these albums have moved since they were released. I suspect Five Leaves Left might show off the greatest gains — going from unknown to nearly essential listening, some 30 years after it was released.

But yeah, it’s hard to make heads or tails of this whole thing, especially when you have Drake sitting next to you, plucking away at his guitar and whispering about the wonders of the natural world.

Klinger: I think I am making both heads and tails of this. Five Leaves Left is one of the most powerful albums we’ve covered in quite some time, even if it is a quiet power. I compare it to Astral Weeks in terms of its general beauteousness and sense of longing, with that album’s jazzish extrapolations replaced with a surprising forcefulness from Drake’s confident guitar playing. His ability to work his way through a number of different time signatures and picking styles (“River Man” is in 5/4 time, for example, which brings a certain off-kilter leaning to the song) belies whatever wispy reputation he may have earned.

But there’s also a clear sense of tradition in Drake’s songwriting — album closer “Saturday Sun” has a chord progression that alternates between gospelized soul and Gershwinesque classicism. Of course, he’s also abetted throughout the album with sympathetic cohorts like fellow Brit-folkie Richard Thompson and Robert Kirby, whose incandescent string arrangement on “Way to Blue” essentially helps set a defining mood for Drake’s entire career.

So we have the Great List’s mathematical amalgamation of the critical hive mind stressing the importance of this album. I’m curious as to how this album hits your ears, Mendelsohn. You’re typically less susceptible to both critical hype and the more introspective side of pop music (Don’t try to deny it, either—I have you on record many times over). What’s your take?

Mendelsohn: While that may be true, I actually enjoy this album quite a bit — most of it anyway — I get a little bored in the middle. I was one of those from the younger generation that was introduced to Drake’s music thanks to the magic of advertising. It was that VW commercial that touched off a firestorm of interest in the music world and pushed Drake’s songs back into the public consciousness. I went out and got Pink Moon, spent a little time with Bryter Layter, and wandered through Five Leaves Left before moving on to whatever else was popping up at the time (15 years ago?!).

In returning to Five Leaves Left, I too immediately drew comparisons to Van Morrison but thinking about it now, Van was always more of a rocker and Astral Weeks was just a prelude to that career path. With Drake, he actively sought out the softer sounds, later shedding the accompaniment and arrangements that helped define his sound on Five Leaves Left. But I think those arrangements are to key helping his sound rise above the rest. I would even go so far as to say that it was the work of Thompson, Kirby, and the direction of producer Joe Boyd that really pushes Five Leaves Left from the level of good into greatness. Don’t get me wrong, if I had to sit down and listen to some random guy play the guitar in a corner, I would choose Nick Drake every time. His guitar playing is exquisite and it is those songs where his lyrics ride the lolling waves of his guitar playing that he is at his best.

Klinger: Well, geez Mendelesohn, I was hoping for a little more or a zesty back and forth where you call Five Leaves Left a snoozer and I get all defensive, and then we end up arguing about whether you were listening to the album incorrectly, possibly while running the vacuum or eating potato chips. I might have told you to go back and listen to the way that Drake modifies the blues on “Three Hours”, weaving it into the very British pastoral folk music that was coming into vogue in the late 1960s.

Or I might have stressed the sweet ambivalence that’s infused throughout “Fruit Tree”, in which he delivers a rumination on the fame that he would never experience throughout his life (not to mention just how prescient he seemed to be). And how that message seemed even more trenchant in the 1990s, when an entire music industry was reaching its peak unsustainable capacity, and the so-called alternative musicians who were getting swallowed up in the tide of that business found themselves grappling with the meaning behind Drake’s words even more than when he wrote them. Given the generally less-sweet ambivalence that was the lingua franca of the ’90s (not to mention the overwhelming grunge fatigue that was surely gripping the pop world at the time) it makes sense that Drake’s posthumous resurgence came along when it did.

These are the arguments I’d have expected to make, but it turns out that you’re right there with me the whole time. But I guess that’s not surprising — such is the siren song of Nick Drake. You’d have to be some kind of robot to listen to this album and remain unmoved. And it’s that ability to move people across the decades that explains why his cult has only continued to grow over the decades. Whatever else was going on in his life, there was something uncanny in his voice, something that reaches across time to find the lonely places that exist in all of us.