26 September 2023

Bryter Layter

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Reviewed by Ian Phillips.

By Nick Drake, Island Records 1970.

Bryter Layter is the middle album of the three produced and released during Nick Drake’s lifetime.

After the disappointment and relative failure of his debut album, Five Leaves Left, Nick opted for his friend Robert Kirby, who took over arrangements from Richard Hewson on Five Leaves Left, to do all the string and brass arrangements on Bryter Layter.

The attempt to make Nick Drake a pop artist was completely abandoned and instead Nick returned to what he does best, write wonderful and heartfelt songs.

Producer Joe Boyd once again employed the services of Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson on lead electric guitar and this time also used Dave Mattacks, Fairport Convention’s drummer and their bass player Dave Pegg.

In addition, he also used the skills of multi-instrumentalist/composer John Cale who played viola and harpsichord on the track Fly and celeste, piano, and organ on Northern Sky.

The washes of strings from the first album were dropped.

With this set of backing musicians, and the quality of Nick’s new set of songs, hopes were high of finally breaking through to substantial radio play and chart success.

By the time that Nick embarked on the recording of Bryter Layter he had ended his Cambridge university studies in English Literature and he’d moved to London so he could devote all his time to his music.

On the 5th of August 1969 he had recorded five songs for John Peel’s BBC show ( Cello song, Three Hours, River Man, Time Of No Reply, and an early version of Bryter Layter) three of which were broadcast the following night.

A month later he opened for Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

He followed this up with appearances at folk clubs in Birmingham and Hull but while things were looking up for him musically, he was struggling psychologically so he made the fateful decision to quit live performance.

He was always a shy and reserved character and he’d found it difficult to engage with the audiences at his concerts.

Often, he would perform a full set of songs and not speak to the audience at all.

Bryter Layter has a more upbeat and jazzier sound than the pastoral/popish Five Leaves Left but once again sales were poor.

In retrospect the album is fantastic and many musicians rate Nick Drake’s work very highly. Northern Song was the only track to make the radio.

Bryter Layter is my second favourite Nick Drake album after the stripped back Pink Moon.

Nick Drake died from a drug overdose (possibly accidental) in 1974, he was 26 years old.

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