Nick Drake - Five Leaves Left (Vinyl)

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Originally released in 1969 'Five Leaves Left' was largely overlooked by critics and music fans at the time - a fate that was to befall his subsequent two studio albums. Unfortunately, Nick Drake didn't live to see his reputation as one of the finest singer-songwriters Britain has ever produced develop. Nevertheless, 'Five Leaves Left' is now widely regarded as one of the most significant debut albums of all time.

Five Leaves Left was recorded between July 1968 and June 1969 at Sound Techniques in London, England. Engineer John Wood recalled that "[Drake] would track live, singing and playing along with the string section" without the use of any overdubbing. For the song "River Man", producer Joe Boyd described Drake playing on a stool in the centre of the studio while surrounded by a semi-circle of instruments. The studio's environment was also an important factor as it had multiple levels to it which enabled the creation of interesting sounds and atmospheres.

Among his various backing musicians, Drake was accompanied by Richard Thompson from Fairport Convention and Danny Thompson of Pentangle. Robert Kirby, a friend of Drake's from his youth, arranged the string instruments for several tracks while Harry Robinson arranged the strings for "River Man". The title of the album is a reference to the old Rizla cigarette papers packet, which used to contain a printed note near the end saying "Only five leaves left".


Nick Drake by accounts was acutely introverted, increasingly over the course of his short career. According to Clinton Heylin in All the Madmen, Nick mostly hardly spoke at all. But he did speak up when necessary to firmly assert artistic control over his vision in the studio, for example with the standard pop string parts proffered by producer Joe Boyd’s arranger, which he rejected as “too mainstream”. Nick “seemed unable to articulate what he wanted, but he knew right away what he didn’t want”.

Nick drafted in his friend Robert Kirby who nailed most of the arrangements, but even he felt “River Man” was beyond him. Finally Joe Boyd enlisted the highly respected arranger Harry Robinson who listened to Nick’s approximation of strings with guitar chords, then conducted his string section for a live take. They got it.

That sense of reticent understatement is the spirit out of which this whole delicate exercise flows. Despite Nick’s depression, the music doesn’t come across to me as depressing. He was keeping his cards so, so close to his chest. Surely a primary contributing factor in his eventual tragic premature departure. The musical result however is hypnotically subtle, as soothing as classical music. But this sparse sound has such a rich English folk/classical vibe that it’s never boring to me like that super-mellow West Coast singer-songwriter stuff.

For me it’s still not clear. Was there a huge morass of self pity? Did he deep down want the cult pathos of failure, suicide and posthumous recognition? He had loving parents. Disappointment with lack of recognition is the only the only motive I’ve uncovered, but it appears almost as if he was deliberately sabotaging himself from the start, baulking at touring and interviews. I suppose it probably was a deathly genuine iron grip of negativity.

Suicidality is quilted right through his work, but openly here already on “Fruit Tree”. His loved ones tried to reach him. As with a couple of other artists I’ve loved, the power and the ephemerality are a package deal. What they had to give was distilled. If you adore this record, you must check out Solid Air by his friend John Martyn, who made it through, with a similar rich chamber folk aesthetic, but a little more celebration.

By: SandyMc

A1 Time Has Told Me
A2 River Man
A3 Three Hours
A4 Way To Blue
A5 Day Is Done
B1 'Cello Song
B2 The Thoughts Of Mary Jane
B3 Man In A Shed
B4 Fruit Tree
B5 Saturday Sun


Packaged in a gatefold sleeve.
Includes a custom inner sleeve.
Some copies include a digital download.
Remastered from high resolution digital source by the album's original engineer, John Wood at Abbey Road Studios.