At the age of 26, Nick Drake died from an overdose of antidepressants. There was something vaguely adolescent about him: His suffering could be insufferable, his mannerism mannered. Yet he was more than a doomed romantic. He was an enigma.
His musical technique is assured. And it’s not really folk music: odd tunings and a slight jazziness add color to the finger picking. Certainly a low tone dominates, but compared to Joni Mitchell (and Drake’s ear for melody), lyrics and voice bare little. Rather, they leave impressions. Given the relative intimacy of production and the folk tradition he came into, Drake’s non-confessionalism is striking.
Common consensus holds that its surface is the least organic of his albums, but Bryter Layter radiates balance. Drake the troubled troubadour (the stark strummer) seems more precious than the one augmented by horns and a rhythm section. On Bryter Layter the music lifts him, and he more or less gets out of the way. From the arrangements on down to the shifts in mood, modulations of affect and attitude temper the gloom – which is heightened as a result. There’s a heartbreaking sense of hope, a reaching for something he can’t have and may not even know.
I shared his angst. Listening to sad music on one’s own is a great way to nurse self-pity. But I’ve grown past that. I don’t “need” antidepressants anymore; I lightened up. And though I’m fond of Bryter Layter, it’s not the salve it used to be. As I hear it now, I want to meet this shy guy and find out who he is. When I do I may see my younger self staring back at me.