Following on from his 1969 debut release, Nick Drake's 1971 album Bryter Layter saw him exploring some new territory, at least in a musical sense.
The arrangements and melodies here are more expansive and outgoing than those on Five Leaves Left, but it would be a mistake to assume that there is a correspondingly sizeable shift in the subject matter explored. Some of them are what you might describe as deceptively jolly.
Here and there I have seen some criticism of the addition of brass, backing vocals and the like, but to me this is simply a matter of personal taste. Less prominence is given to Nick Drake's acoustic guitar picking than elsewhere in his catalogue. For what it's worth, I think that by and large the arrangements tastefully complement or augment the songs rather than tarnishing them. In any event, it would have been surprising if the artist had been content to tread water and serve up a similar dish to that represented by Five Leaves Left.
Following on from the opener "Introduction", "Hazey Jane II" features some delicate but pleasing guitar by Richard Thompson, and a sprightly enough tune. The enigmatic lyrics may or may not have certain meanings. and like other numbers on the record, they almost lull the listener into a false sense of hope and buoyancy.
"At The Chime Of A City Clock" seems to focus on issues of urban living, the bohemian lifestyle, loneliness and alienation. The saxophone part is an inspired touch, and one of the most effective of the instrumental contributions which characterize Bryter Layter.
Existential topics are explored by "One Of These Things First". The piano, like other instrumentation on the LP, makes the song "swing", if such a term is appropriate to be applied to the singer-songwriter/folk genre.
Other offerings which stand out are the title track which, whimsically, is an instrumental piece, although the flute alone makes it worthwhile. Such textures help to make the album seem less dry and dusty, but also add to its wistfulness. John Cale makes unobtrusive but excellent contributions on viola and harpsichord to the song "Fly".
It seems to me that "Poor Boy" has attracted the most adverse comment, because of the bossa-nova flavoured rhythmic pattern and the backing arrangement, especially the piano solo sections. One interpretation of the song's words is that Nick was utilizing the traits of poverty as a metaphor for a more general emotional malaise.
"Northern Sky" is perhaps one of the better known songs in the Drake canon. I might aver that it lacks the punch of other songs here, and it is less ostentatious melodically, but no worse for that. Like other tracks, this one almost flirts with joy and happiness, but the underlying sentiment is one of pleading and uncertainty. John Cale again features here.
"Sunday" is truly evocative and haunting, and the title is cleverly chosen. Another splendid use of the flute. A reminder that instrumentals can convey just as much as any number of "profound" and earnest lyrical outpourings.
Despite appearances, in the final analysis this album feels like more of a "downer" than Five Leaves Left, partly because of the ambiguity in many of the words. There is an authenticity and starkness about these songs which sets them apart from much of the "confessional" fare being released by other people in the early Seventies.
A fragility, vulnerability and yearning emerge which are quite disconcerting, and the sense of mild disorientation is heightened by the idiosyncratic arrangements. This all makes for a gripping, entertaining but occasionally unsettling listen.