When my good friend Phil recommended this CD to me, he helpfully provided a product advisory. "I'm warning you," Phil emailed. "It's really melancholy stuff, so make sure you don't have any sharp objects lying around when you listen to it."
Like any good Irishman, I love mournful music, and I have a particular weakness for suicidal musicians, especially the ones that died too early to suck. So Phil's words of warning were like catnip to me. Move over Joy Division, Nirvana, and Elliott Smith; make room in the Case Logic for some Nick Drake.
I soon found that Phil was right--and wrong.
On one hand, "Five Leaves Left" feels like the saddest CD ever recorded. You can't fake these emotions; every poignant lyric, every aching guitar chord, and every weeping cello proclaim that this is the voice of a troubled and self-critical soul. Nick Drake died of an overdose at the age of 26; oddly enough, of his three albums, this first one sounds most like a suicide note.
Granted, there's some debate among his fans as to whether his death was indeed a suicide, whether the overdose was accidental or deliberate. On one hand, he OD'd on antidepressants, even though barbituates were available, and he didn't leave a note. On the other hand, he'd already written "Fruit Tree."
Has any musician penned a more convincing suicide note? I doubt it. "Safe in your place deep in the earth/That's when they'll know what you were truly worth." I'm sorry, Ian Curtis--"Closer" may come close, but nothing's more depressing than that. And unlike, say, Elliott Smith, whose pop sensibilities often contrasted his morbid lyrics, every note of this song amplifies its mournfulness.
Still, this album is comforting in its melancholia--it doesn't leave you feeling suicidal, because you listen to it and know there's someone out there who has felt your feelings and given voice to your thoughts. In fact, it's perfect music to listen to at sunset on a Sunday night, when the day and the weekend are over and you haven't accomplished anything and you're facing another 40 hour week of work-related drudgery. If you're thinking of picking up a guitar and hiring a string arranger and writing a song about those emotions, don't bother--you won't do any better than "Day is Done," a 2-and-a-half-minute gem that perfectly encapsulates those feelings.
So cheer up, all you sad people--there's a man out there who understood you, even though he never met you. I wish he'd found a way out of the depression, found a way to stick around, write new songs, and keep his old songs from being used in Volkswagon commercials; they say dying young's a great career move, but you miss out on a lot, and when you're dead you can't stop people from doing silly things with your back catalog. Also, even though people romanticize depression and drug overdoses, they really aren't all that fun, especially for those left behind. But Nick left us with some great music, and we can at least be thankful for that. "Don't you worry," he sang, to us, and to himself. "They'll stand and stare when you're gone." Amen, brother.
on June 11, 2000
Before reading an article on Nick Drake in Entertainment Weekly I'd never heard of him or his music. The article praised his brilliant musical talent and I was intrigued enough by the album synopses to by a CD. When I first listened to 'Five Leaves Left' I wasn't swept away. But something about it made me immediately listen to it a second time. Upon listening to it again I disovered depths to it that I didn't catch the first time. And each subsequent listening has revealed more and more depth. 'Man in a Shed' is one of the most buoyant love songs I've ever heard. The lively guitar picking is remarkable. 'Saturday Sun' perfectly captures the mood of waking up slowly on Saturday morning.
Sure, there are other artists who have silken voices and beautiful guitar playing but Nick Drake has something more. Maybe it's the melancholy, maybe it's the brief moments of optimism, but something about his music pulls you in and makes it hard for you to want to leave. It's a shame that his music wasn't really appreciated in his time but sometimes it takes a distance of years for a genius to really receive his due.
on June 25, 1999
This is the Nick Drake album I find myself listening to the most. Although I think Pink Moon is probably one of the greatest records of all time and endlessly fascinating it can be a hard listen emotionally. Five Leaves Left is an extremely accomplished debut and is the one record that best represents who Nick Drake was and why he is so revered. Every song on here is wonderful and the instrumentation perfectly matches Nick's quiet vocal style. How can you really describe this record? If you've heard this record you will know what I mean. There is a quiet strength to his music that at first listen can almost seem anemic. This understated quality is so rare with music today. He is not screaming for the listener's attention but rather inviting you into a world of his own. And once you have entered this world that he has created it is truly seeing the power of music.
on December 1, 1999
Nick Drake, it seems, was a gentle soul with a genuine gift who labored under a crippling depression before dying at an early age. The brevity of his career, his cult-like status, and the circumstances surrounding his short, sad life could be seen as providing fertile ground for a lot of romantic mythologizing. But really, all that's needed to tell the story of Nick Drake is his music I guess. I bought FIVE LEAVES LEFT never having heard a note of Nick's music, intrigued by what I'd read. The first thing that struck me was his voice. It has a hollow, whispery quality to it, but with an underlying richness and loose, easy phrasing. The songs are gentle and melancholy but never self-concious or cloying. The conviction of Nick's delivery gives them an emotional weight, once you are drawn in by the voice. The fact that he recorded it when he was only twenty years old is remarkable. "Time Has Told Me" has a very relaxed almost country feel to it and is a fine love song born out of the pain of experience. "River Man" is almost certainly the stand out of the entire album. It weaves a hypnotic spell and although I'd be hard pressed to say what it's ABOUT, I can say that like all great pieces of music it is an event which makes you FEEL something, even if you're not sure what it is. "Cello Song" and "Three Hours" have the strongest folk flavor to them and feature some fine finger-style guitar work from the singer. The strings on "Way To Blue", "Day Is Done" and others give the songs a strong melancholy feel which lightens up a little towards the end of the collection. "The Thoughts Of Mary Jane" is more wistful and "Man In A Shed" is a little on the jazzy side. "Fruit Tree" seems particularly prescient, dealing as it does with artists whose work bears fruit after their passing, echoed by the fact that Nick Drake didn't sell a great many records while he was alive and his music has gained it's reputation virtually by word of mouth. "Saturday Sun" closes out the set with a gospely blues feel. I'd have to say that going by this one album, everything I read about Nick Drake is true. I did find a strong emotional identification with Nick through the songs which far from being merely the result of romantic idealization of a tragic, dead figure, is actually the whole basis of a listeners appreciation to his art. You really feel for the guy and some of the music is emotionally pretty heavy, but he makes such beauty out of the pain and never asks us to wallow in it, only appreciate it for what it is. I heard Nick Drake's music described as a private little oasis you visit every so often and that seems pretty apt. It also seems to be true that this music IS addictive. I can hardly wait to hear the other three.
on April 26, 2015
I think it's safe to say Nick Drake was a musician of genius. Five Leaves Left came out when he was only 21 years old. An amazing effort for someone so young. FLL is an album that appeals on different levels: lyrics, voice, guitar work. Unfortunately Drake never had a producer worthy of his gifts and some of the songs on FLL sound as if they were recorded in someone's apartment.
Lyrics. Drake's lyrics are refreshingly literate, mature and unpretentious for a 21 year old man of that time (1969). His meanings are often obscure, but he comes up with good lines and you are given things to think about. He references nature a lot, in a traditional hippie way, but even here he's restrained and matter of fact. A shadowing melancholy is apparent in FLL. By the time of Pink Moon it had become very apparent.
Voice. Drake has/had an elegant, soft, velvety and recognizable voice. He even sounds English. Posh English as a matter of fact - which he was, his family being of the posh class. His range is very limited however, probably not much more than an octave; and you won't hear any dramatics from him. I suspect this was one of the reasons his albums had such limited appeal while he was alive. But his voice was a nice though understated complement to his guitar playing.
Guitar. Simply put, he was beyond good on the guitar. His songs revolve around that fact - and he knew it. His voice had its limits, his lyrics were thoughtful but in an understated English way. His guitar was the star. Particularly his use of unusual modalities and chord progressions. This isn't immediately apparent but a few bars into River Man and you find yourself saying, "Oh, that was well done!" That was his main genius: to find a guitar line off the beaten path and explore it well. His words and voice were like leaves floating on the bubbling stream of notes pouring out of his guitar. He was technically gifted too. Drake's playing is clear, clean and rhythmic. Finally, he could sing while playing his complicated guitar lines. No small feat there.
As I mentioned earlier his producer (and back up musicians) for the most part did him no great favors. If you listen to Drake playing alone he sounds better than with all the strings, saxes and flutes thrown into the mixer. He would have benefited greatly having a producer who knew how to make his music rattle the china now and then. Had FLL been a Nick Drake solo effort I'd give it five stars. But the uninspired producing and accompaniment drag it down.
Given that he was such an accomplished singer/songwriter at only 21 you just have to wonder what Drake might have achieved had he not fallen into the mire of depression that put an early end to his song.
on March 4, 2007
Some reviewers are critical of Volkswagen's use of Pink Moon in one of their commercials. I'm not. I praise it.
I lived in Germany when the commercial was aired the first time, - it came on TV one late night. And like many other viewers, I was hypnotized.
Did we all run out to buy cars? No. But we all called or wrote to VW, to ask who the singer was.
After that, I have always had a warm little spot in my heart for VW, becaused they introduced Nick Drake to the world. Money here, and money there. I still believe there was a large part heart in the making of that commercial.
on July 12, 2006
This is a perfect album, with perfect singing so intimate you feel like he's whispering in your ear, perfect guitar playing from the acknowledged "Hendrix of the acoustic," and perfect arrangements with perfectly tasteful orchestrations and perfect contributions from the likes of Richard Thompson and Rocky Dzidzornu.
How this man avoided superstardom in his own (tragically brief) lifetime is anyone's guess... more than anything his refusal to tour and perform behind his albums probably did the most to conceal him from the public. I suppose none of that matters now that so many people have jumped onto the Drake bandwagon and he is almost a household name, better later than never.
That said, there are no words to describe the shimmering beauty of not just these songs, but every single one the guy ever recorded. Several of these tunes are legitimate entrants into the ongoing, mythological "Most Achingly Gorgeous Song Ever Written" competition, if there were ever to be such a thing. "River Man" in particular is as close to Heaven that you'll find on Earth, odd as that seems for a song that alludes to the Underworld and Death. Definitely the most melancholically beautiful song ever attempted in 5/4, that's for sure.
I adore every note of this record, but the standouts for me are the cryptic tale of the mysterious Jeremy in "Three Hours" (driven exquisitely by Rocky's percussion) and the opening song "Time Has Told Me," which features an unbelievably soulful guitar commentary by Thompson, an inarguably certain first-ballot Music Hall of Famer in his own right. Some people point to these two songs and a few others to make the claim that they prove Nick was gay, but that's all useless speculation that will never be resolved and who cares anyway? One of his talents is in the oblique resonance of the lyrics (much like in Sandy Denny's work), where you don't quite get the whole picture of what he's talking about but it brings you to tears anyway.
If you have never heard or heard of Nick Drake you should just buy the whole catalog of his 3 albums and the 2 compilations released posthumously ("Time of No Reply" and "Made to Love Magic") immediately and dive right in, because like I said he made no missteps whatsoever, just rare and complete perfection throughout.
on July 24, 2003
Five Leaves Left was Nick Drake's first record, and was released in 1969. He left Cambridge to record it, a year before he would finish his degree.. but music was his love, so he followed it to London, and the rest is history. The album was titled after the saying on the inside of cigarette papers at that time -- when it said "Five Leaves Left," it was time to buy more.
Where Nick Drake's second album, Bryter Layter, is very jazzy and complex, with multiple, somewhat upbeat arrangements, and Pink Moon, Nick's third album, is very stark and somewhat quiet, with really only the man and his guitar, this album, his debut, is somewhat somber, melodic, and classically-influenced, with a sort-of baroque, heavy feel. Most arrangements here were done by Nick's friend and collaborator, Robert Kirby.
Beginning with Time Has Told Me, a beautiful psuedo-love song with an uncharacteristic country-style twang (actually Richard Thompson on electric guitar, the Fairport Convention member being of the same band as the man who 'discovered' Nick Drake at a show, Ashley Hutchings), the album goes on its lovely course with the second track, River Man, a beautiful, lulling song which has a true feeling of motion. Some say the song might be about the river in Cambridge that one must cross to get from one part of the city/campus to another.. in any event a gorgeous, inventive song.
The haunting and melodic Three Hours appears next, a song written about a friend of Nick's, and featuring some great guitar work. Then comes Way to Blue, a classical, sweeping song of great beauty, it enchants with its violin arrangements.
Day is Done (which in the past couple of years has been covered by the talented Norah Jones) is a pretty song with wonderful guitar-work. The next track, Cello Song, is my favorite song here. It is absolutely gorgeous, from the first notes to the last, and with its intensive, rootsy percussion and full arrangements, really is a classic Drake song, up with Pink Moon, Fly and Black Eyed Dog as one of his most recognizable "trademark" songs.
The Thoughts of Mary Jane is a whimsical song with light wind instruments as accompaniment. An even more whimsical version appears on the 1986 cd (and part of the Fruit Tree box set), Time of No Reply. (Drake had rejected that studio version in favor of the one that appears here.)
Man in a Shed is a simple unrequited love song, and Fruit Tree is a brooding, almost prophetic (in Nick's case) song about post-humous fame. Like Van Gogh, Drake was destined to live his life in obscurity, the intrinsic value and beauty and importance of his art unrecognized by the world until he was gone. It is such a sad story, but the only consolation is that his music is being heard now, by more and more people all the time. And we can all hope that somewhere he can hear us saying, "Thank you," and "it is so beautiful!" The closing song here, Saturday Sun, is a playful and pretty piano track which nicely rounds out the album.
All in all an interesting, multi-faceted album with depth and innovation, beauty and soul. There is something timeless here, something elemental. Those who have heard Drake's music know there is something special about it, a kind of quiet mystery which reaches into your heart and intrigues it until you find yourself just wanting to listen.. in the morning, at night, on a rainy afternoon in autumn. The mood, the essence of Drake's work just seems to suit our days here on this earth so well.. he sings of seasons, of time, of love and love lost, of hope and of friendship, of hardship and trying to overcome it, of loneliness and heartache.. the stuff of life. The mystery, the joy, the pain, the love, all of it. As we live our lives, as we do our work, as we explore and wander and inquire, as we love our loves, win sometimes and lose others, have our ups and downs, we find that music is great company, and Drake's music, and company, is some of the best. Anyone who considers buying any of Drake's albums should really consider getting Fruit Tree, which includes all four official Drake releases. Once you hear his music, anything less might not be enough.
on March 2, 2006
It took about one hundred listens of each of the great Nick Drake albums (the others being Bryter Layter and Pink Moon) to realize that 'Five Leaves Left' is the strongest of Drakes and amongst the greatest debut albums in music history.
Each track resonates through the listeners soul and the effect is deep and everlasting...they exude serenity, beauty and honesty in a very uniquely 'Drake' way, there is no bitterness or anguish or any real emotion in his vocal execution and I believe that it is his execution along with his rock hard lyrics that sets him above anybody else.
To describe this albums individual tracks can never do it justice, it needs to be listened to...and once listened to- again and again.
on April 26, 2012
For folks looking to discover Nick Drake, I would suggest checking out his album "Pick Moon" first because there's the most amount of Nick on that record. What do I mean by that? Well, Pink Moon features only Nick Drake; playing all guitars, singing all of the vocals, and playing a little bit of piano, that album doesn't have the orchestration (and while I feel rather neutral about all of that) that seems to hold Nick down a bit. I'm not saying this is a bad album at all, I think it's a solid release. What I'm saying is that I personally prefer Pink Moon the best. Fans of Nick Drake shouldn't miss out on this album because it does contain some really good tracks.