Don’t go looking for extensive chart statistics to map the career of Nick Drake, because there aren’t any. That’s to say that, however much we now rightly revere the quintessential sensitive singer-songwriter, his tragically short life was painfully unrepresented by any commercial rewards on either the UK or US charts while he was alive. A far cry from today, when you hear his music playing everywhere, from album-oriented radio stations to supermarkets.
Today we celebrate the start of Drake’s all-too-brief recording span and his debut album Five Leaves Left. Produced by the great acoustic music frontiersman Joe Boyd and released by Island on 1 September 1969, the LP featured such timelessly haunting pieces as ‘Time Has Told Me,’ ‘River Man’ and ‘Way To Blue.’
Five Leaves Left, which took its title from the manufacturer’s message inserted near the end of a packet of Rizla cigarette papers, was recorded between the summer of 1968 and a year later. It featured contributions from Richard Thompson, then of Fairport Convention, on guitar, Danny Thompson on bass and others, as well as the beautiful arrangements of Robert Kirby.
Five Leaves Left has come to be internationally acknowledged as a classic, landing at No. 280 in Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, 85th in a 2005 poll by the UK’s Channel 4 TV, and No. 74 in an NME all-time list. In 1975, the NME’s Nick Kent described it as “one of those albums that seem tied to exhorting and then playing on a particular mood in the listener, like Astral Weeks and Forever Changes.”
Indeed, the public’s apparent indifference to Drake’s singular talents was not for lack of some critical approval. Mark Williams, reviewing Five Leaves Left as a new release for the International Times, made the point that the newcomer’s voice would be compared with Donovan’s.
“But Don would get nowhere without his songs and Nick will get nowhere without his,” he wrote. “They are beautiful, gentle breezes of cadent perfection which carry along reflective poems like dancing, golden leaves.”
Five Leaves Left can be bought here.