John Martyn laughed when Nick Drake died, that was the first thought that came to mind when I read about the reissue and mastering of Drake’s sophomore album Bryter Layter. It was something for which his wife never forgave him. 18 months before Drake died of an overdose of antidepressants, Martyn released the acclaimed album, Solid Air, the title track about the doomed singer songwriter, and in many ways it is the perfect description of the man himself and the difficulty simply existing presented to him. Solid Air, a man who in life was occasionally physically present, but simultaneously so easy to miss due to his chronic shyness, and moving “through solid air”, the difficulty of living and doing things that so many find so easy (e.g. meeting women).

The other thought that I had is that, though Bryter Layter is his most critically acclaimed album (23rd in Q magazine’s greatest British albums of all time), it is also his worst, by far. It is not Drake’s songwriting that lets the album down, but the fact that it is problematically overdubbed and cluttered with too many instruments. After the commercial failure of debut Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter feels like a very obvious and often clumsy and desperate stab at success. Joe Boyd produced it, John Cale and Beach Boys session musicians played on it, and it might’ve been so much better if they’d all left well alone. The backing vocals and nagging (nagging in the annoying domestic sense of the word) piano and alto sax work on ‘Poor Boy’ epitomise this perfectly. Virtuoso they are and with all the self-indulgence that that word suggests. The extended outro, the endless noodling and soloing all add precisely nothing to the song, obfuscate Drake’s lovely, woody voice and great songwriting, and render it unlistenable. Lyn Dobson’s extended flute solo on the title track is deeply reminiscent of the jazz flute in Anchorman, the way Ron Burgundy stamps all over the dining tables crushing glasses as he goes the perfect visual metaphor for her horrible playing. The overall effect is very nearly, but not quite, fatal. Because, despite all this there are still some things to love here, and the songs with little, no, or less-intrusive musicianship are definitely the best.

‘At the Chime of a City Clock’ is rather lovely, as is ‘One of These Things first’. ‘Northern Sky’ is in itself the brightness in this album’s northern sky. Simple, and simply beautiful, it is a wonderfully gentle call out for love, the polar opposite to the predatory prowl of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Big Love’. Clearly the album’s best song, it accurately depicts Nick Drake as a passive component in his own life, always waiting for someone else to come along and improve his lot, “Brighten my northern sky” – Solid Air indeed. And yet, somewhat perversely, in death, it is this very characteristic, combined with his very real songwriting and guitar playing talent, that has ensured his posthumous success. For modern listeners he is a boy perpetually trapped in the oncoming headlights of a car, an endless car crash from which it is impossible to turn away. That Nick Drake died in his parents house in the very bedroom that he grew up in is horribly fitting, a child to the last. Some might find comfort in his posthumous success, and that, in death, he massively overshadows John Martyn, but in reality the dead don’t appreciate anything.

Just over a year after the release of Bryter Layter, Nick Drake recorded his final album, Pink Moon, at midnight in two separate two-hour sessions over two days, and it is great for all the reasons that Bryter Layter is not. Featuring just Drake and his unparalleled guitar playing with just one piano overdub on the title track played by the man himself, it is stripped-back, raw, gut-wrenchingly sad, and nigh-on perfect. It is every bit one of the greatest British albums of all time, and perfectly sets into stark relief the many failings of Bryter Layter, which by comparison plays like a ferrari joy-ridden into a brick wall.

Available in heavyweight audiophile vinyl, this Bryter Layter reissue comes in a box with reproductions of the original shop poster, a smaller ‘live’ poster and a reprint of Nick’s handwritten set list together with reproductions of the master tape reel and tape box lids. Buy both Five Leaves Left and Pink Moon before you even consider this.


6 out of 11

Release Date 29/04/2013 (Universal)

Chris Gilliver

I started out writing for the Manchester Evening News as a freelance journalist back in 2008. The idea that I would be given free access to music and gigs seemed somehow miraculous to me, and I proceeded to take full advantage of the situation. When the M.E.N. decided to constrict its coverage to only the very biggest bands, Simon Poole approached me with a plan to make sure that all the very talented musicians of this world that pass through and/or live in Manchester would not go unnoticed. As the New Releases editor here at Silent Radio Towers, it remains my proud duty to cast a critical eye over the music and reviews that come my way in a manner that is both supportive and fair. Above all, I strive to write as entertainingly possible. Favourite musicians include the Pixies, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Mercury Rev, Os Mutantes, The Knife, Beach House etc etc. I'm a firm believer that all genres (except nu-metal) contain music of great quality...