Part 3: Nick Drake String Arrangements on ‘Bryter Layter’

Nick Drake’s second album entitled ‘Bryter Layter’ was recorded in 1970, after Drake had effectively ‘dropped out’ of Cambridge. He had ended up living in a bedsit in Belsize Park organised by the producer Joe Boyd after spending months sleeping on friends’ sofas and floors. It was a year where he finally became disillusioned with performing live: it seemed that the scenario was too exposed for his introverted and withdrawn personality and he backed away from it feeling battered and bruised.

‘Bryter Layter’ was an attempt to try and sell more records (after the commercial disappointment of ‘Five Leaves Left’) as there was a recognition that Drake’s obvious songwriting talents had not translated into sales. By adding drum and bass guitar as well as a variety of different instruments it was hoped that the songs would capture the public’s attention and propel him into greater prominence. It eventually led to disappointment as it failed to sell many more than its predecessor and artistically marred some of Drake’s creations through often inappropriate arrangements (the low points being the subway-style saxophone in ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’ and the gospel choir that seems so out of place on ‘Poor Boy’).

The album starts with a track entitled ‘Introduction’ – a pretty fragment of an idea that seems to lead on so naturally from ‘Five Leaves Left’ and has the feeling of waves lapping against the shore. It consists of an arpeggiated acoustic guitar pattern accompanied by some lush string writing. Again, Kirby adds some simple but attractive string lines that are in sympathy with the ambience of the track.

Sadly, this mood is shattered in ‘Hazey Jane II’ which has a Tijuana-style brass sound reminiscent of an Easy Listening record. Admittedly the mood is more upbeat and so wouldn’t have suited the acoustic guitar/congas/strings combination, but nonetheless the arrangement seems like a slight mismatch of styles.

The strings return in ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’, a subtly observational song where sadly Drake’s acoustic guitar playing is again pushed more to the background. There is a feeling in this track that the ingredients that created the magic of ‘Five Leaves Left’ have been largely overlooked and so the song doesn’t always play to Nick Drake’s obvious strengths. Here the strings are asked to fit into a mix with drums, bass, vocals and guitar (and later a meandering saxophone) so end up being sidelined, rather like the acoustic guitar.

‘Hazey Jane I’ is the fifth track on the album and here the strings are pushed back in the mix, despite the track only having a light scoring (the guitar, vocals, bass and drums being not as active as in ‘City Clock’). They are sensitively arranged and again work well in tandem with Drake’s acoustic guitar work but the plate reverb smothers them, giving them a Mantovani-like feel. . .and that isn’t a good thing!

In the title track ‘Bryter Layter’, the unison upper strings (doubling the flute) are used for the main ‘hook’, in this dipsy, dreamy, light-hearted number.

The last track entitled ‘Sunday’ (like ‘Bryter Layter’ a purely instrumental track) also contains strings and despite their subtle presence, they do add a warmth to the track that belies their skill. Generally written in the lower register, they give a harmonic richness and depth that ‘fills out’ the track nicely.

‘Bryter Layter’ does contain some beautiful tracks (such as ‘Northern Sky’, one of the best songs on all three albums). The overall impression though, is of a producer throwing as much instrumentation at the album as possible. There are strings, flutes, saxophones, gospel choirs, harpsichords, cocktail pianos and even a dodgy sounding viola. This mishmash of different styles may not be entirely the producer’s fault: Drake may have been responding to criticism that the first album was too ‘samey’ and therefore set out to make the mood of the songs in the second offering more upbeat and varied. But his sublime songwriting talents were of a delicate nature and overall (despite some wonderful highlights) this album doesn’t quite hit the mark as ‘Five Leaves Left’ did (and ‘Pink Moon’ was to do in a different way). Nonetheless, for the growing legions of Nick Drake fans, it is a cherished offering which begs the question of what he could have achieved if his life hadn’t been cut so terribly short.