26 September 2023

Five Leaves Left

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Reviewed by Ian Phillips.

By Nick Drake, Island Records 1971.

My look back at the three albums released by English singer/songwriter Nick Drake was initiated by the discovery of the wonderful previously unreleased album, Fireside Stories, by Trevor Beales.

While Beales never got to record his songs in a proper studio, Nick Drake did so but as I mentioned in last week’s review for Pink Moon, his final album, he sold very few copies during his lifetime.

Five Leaves Left is the first album of Nick’s trilogy and producer Joe Boyd decided to flesh out the sound by including string arrangements and employing some of England’s best folk musicians for the backing band.

The sound that Boyd was trying to replicate was similar to the technique used on Leonard Cohen’s debut album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967).

It worked particularly well for Cohen but was less effective for Nick Drake’s songs.

Nick was joined by some fine musicians, most notably the wonderful Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson and the excellent Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson (the two musicians are not related).

The album consists of ten tracks and Nick plays guitar on all of them plus piano on the last track, Saturday Sun.

While Danny Thompson plays bass on most tracks Richard Thompson’s contribution is limited to electric guitar on the opening cut Time Has Told Me.

I think that the best song on the disc is River Man which has Nick supported by his guitar and some understated strings.

Apparently, the recording sessions didn’t go well because Drake and Boyd were searching for different outcomes.

Boyd was a fan of Beatles producer George Martin and wanted to make full use of the studio as an instrument while Drake preferred a more organic sound.

Neither of them was happy with the arranger, Richard Anthony Hewson, who was trying to turn Nick Drake’s songs into mainstream pop.

Ultimately Drake replaced Hewson with an old college friend named Robert Kirby but the centrepiece track, River Man, was orchestrated by veteran composer Harry Robertson.

Reviews for the album were varied with Melody Maker describing it as ‘Poetic and Interesting’ but it was poorly marketed and got very little radio time.

Five Leaves Left may not have turned out as Nick had imagined it would sound but it’s still a good album and contains some incredibly mature and sophisticated songs.

It’s an album that continues to grow on me every time I feel in a Nick Drake Mood.

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