Well, here we go with another album of sadsackery, depressing, morose, exquisitely beautiful, loner music. This is yet more of that music which haunts my nineties reminiscences. This one is not really even an album proper. It was originally included as part of the long deleted Fruit Tree boxset released in 1986 which contained his three albums plus this collection of bonus material. The first ten songs herein date from sessions in 1967 and 68, while the last four are from 1974. Nowadays, or since the Nick Drake marketing machine has established his legacy through a growing crop of compilations, you can buy Time Of No Reply separately.
I bought Fruit Tree as a CD boxset some time in the mid 90s. The reason…? I read an interview in 95 with Robert Smith. He said he’d been listening to a lot of Nick Drake and that it would influence the new Cure album (which turned out to be Wild Mood Swings and seemed to have little if anything in common with Nick Drake other than both are Englishmen who make upliftingly morose music.) Nevertheless I decided I would familiarize myself with Nick Drake, threw myself in the deep end and never looked back. It took me a while to get into him. On first listen his music came across as vague and a bit wispy, with strange or difficult melodies. It took me some dedicated listening originally to get over those hurdles, but it was a well rewarded effort. I liked the first album, Five Leaves Left (69), and I liked the bleaker Pink Moon (72). The middle one, Bryter Layter (70) never appealed to me as much with its slightly sappy orchestral strings permeating too much of the music.
Time of No Reply however, which collects bits and bobs of proper songs together for a posthumous compilation of extra material, is the real winner in my opinion because it mixes things up a bit, is mostly unadorned, and it contains my two favourite Nick Drake songs – ‘Time of No Reply’ and ‘Black Eyed Dog.’ While it may seem slightly pretentious choosing a previously hard-to-come-by compilation of extras and outtakes as one’s favourite album among any artist’s catalogue, I would like to state that when I insert Time of No Reply in here as my fifth favourite album of all time, there is a little bit of squeezing the whole Drake oeuvre into that slot, because in effect, I discovered all four CDs together over the years 1995-96. This one stands out as the one I always pull out and play now and again far more regularly than the others. It’s the one that I’ve consistently taken a liking to and I know the songs so well, that when I play this just once these days, I have the songs resonating in my head for a whole week afterward. That’s good. I enjoy the unusual sound of Nick Drake – he uses his own guitar tunings which is why his songs sound so unique – the combination of notes is completely different to the standard EADGBE guitar tuning. This is why I think Nick Drake is so revered. His tunings possessed that haunted quality that gives his work their mystery and depth, and hence their longevity. Bumstead, lower the needle already.
Time Of No Reply…opens with a line that says it all: “Summer was gone and the heat died down / And autumn reached for her golden crown / And I looked around as I heard a sigh / This was the time of no reply.” Autumn, the season of loss. My LP recording of this is beautiful. Loud clear warm. Far better than the CD I had in the 90s. This song uses arpeggio guitar and voice to create an exquisite tune. “The trees and the hills have nothing to say / They would keep their dreams for another day.” This song is going to be over before I can say anything more about it. It’s the guitar line that I love – it’s just so unusual. The notes I mean – sort of plangent. It inspired me to pick up a guitar to some extent. That finger picking. The song sort of weaves up and down. Not just my favourite Nick Drake song, but one of my favourite songs full stop. Great tune.
I Was Made To Love Magic…uses cellos and horns to wonderfully delicate effect, as well as a drum beat, all so crisp and beautifully recorded. This is pretty much a ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ song – “I was made to love magic / All its wonder to know / But you all lost that magic / Many many years ago.” The cellos and bass give this song a rocking kind of feeling – easy to imagine I’m on a boat rocking back and forth when I listen to it. I love the way this song finishes – it sort of distracts your attention with this off kilter flute thing like a Pink Floyd dream piece, and without quite realizing it, suddenly the song’s over.
Joey…is about a girl. This is quite similar in feel and style to first song ‘Time of No Reply’ – the same notes being plucked over and over and round and round in arpeggio style, with a beautiful deep resonant sound. It sounds to my ears like he’s not using a steel string. The lower strings sound like nylon and the higher ones sound like steel – it’s weird. I can’t tell exactly. Possibly all steel and that they sound like nylon is a result of the tuning. These are incredibly complicated arpeggios. They’re beautiful in the way the vocal melody floats over them nonchalantly as if making you forget that his fingers are doing something incredibly sophisticated. This is another song concerned with autumn, the season which signals loss: “Joey will come / To see your flowers / Joey will come / To while away your hours / She will tell you you’re not so good for her / She wouldn’t been there if could be that you were / Joey has loved / Never shown her tears / So she may love / In the autumn of your years / And when you’re with her / You wonder if it’s true / All of they said of a world without you / Where she may come from / Where she may go / Who she may run from / No one will know / Why she was late / May trouble you some / Still you wait for Joey to come.”
Clothes Of Sand…same style again – voice and guitar only. He uses the whole fretboard up and down across all six strings just plucking, plucking, on and on. Another subtle, delicate, plangent melody while Nick’s smoky voice trails over the top of the haunting tune. “Clothes of sand have covered your face / Given you meaning, taken my place / So make your way down to the sea / Something has taken you so far from me.” Yet again, loss.
Man In A Shed…this is all about a fellow who smokes too much pot. “There was a man who lived in a shed / Spent most of his days out of his head / For his shed was rotten, let in the rain / Said it was enough to drive any man insane.” He lives out in a shed and he tries to get this girl to come and live with him but she won’t. “There was a girl who lived nearby / When he saw her he could only simply sigh…/… So when he called her, his shed to mend / She said, ‘I’m sorry, you’ll just have to find a friend’ / Well this story is not so very new / Well the man is me and yes the girl is you.” It is like a little short story and that’s why I’m so much more aware of the lyrics in this song than others like Rider On The Wheel or Mayfair. He’s lonely in this shed and he really wants this girl to “find that sheds are nicer than you thought.” This song uses the arpeggio technique too, but it has a little strum every now and then to add rhythm.
Mayfair…this is the first strummed song. As a consequence it’s a lot more catchy because it has a more syncopated walking rhythm. I’ve never really thought about the lyrics to this one though. He seems to forget the lyrics at the end of the second verse. He starts to sing the chorus and goes “dadadada” instead and then laughs, and then returns to the main verse. Nice tune. Something about ‘Mayfair’ though I’m not really sure what this is about.
Fly…this is one of my big faves. I love this song because it sounds so harrowed, moving. He doesn’t even sound like he’s singing; more like begging or pleading, “Please / Give me second grace / I’ve fallen far down / The first time around / I just sit on the ground in your way.” It’s chilling, and the guitar playing is something altogether different again – a chiming sound, he chime-arpeggios this incredibly beautiful downward chord thing and wails the chorus in a quavering falsetto. “Please / Tell me your second name.” You can hear the desperation loud and clear, yet married to the most gorgeous tune. There is something very unnerving about this song though. He often sounds like he’s about to burst into tears. Probably one of the best three songs on the album. I only just realised recently that this song also appears on Bryter Layter, but this is by far the better version.
The Thoughts of Mary Jane…“Who can know the thoughts of Mary Jane / Why she flies or goes out in the rain / Where she’s been and who she’s seen / In her journey to the stars.” I’m guessing in the classic tradition of personifying marijuana as Mary-Jane, this song is an ode to pot. Or more accurately, an ode to THC, whatever it is that makes your mind drift and makes Mary-Jane “the princess of the sky.” He asks, “Who can know what happens in her mind / Did she come from a strange world / And leave her mind behind.” There’s a really nice electric guitar in this one, sort of muffled beneath the main arpeggio figure which enhances the song a lot. Very mellow and pretty.
Been Smoking Too Long…another pot song, this one though about the detrimental effects of pot smoking. “Tell me, tell me / What have I done wrong? / Ain’t nothing go right with me / Must be I’ve been smoking too long … / … Nightmares made of hash dreams / Got the devil in my shoes.” The other main thing about this song is that it’s the first one to really sound like an ‘out-take’. The vocal is not well recorded – a bit muffled. It’s quite a neat little tune, but alas, ruined a tad by the poor quality.
Strange Meeting II…this is back to that haunting sound. Again the quality of this one isn’t so good. Not bad but you can tell they must have needed to fill the album up and were running out of quality sounding material. That’s not to say the song itself isn’t good. It’s a really unusual one – that same arpeggio voice thing again, but just a really unique melody. I know this song well from having heard it many times, but it’s probably the most low key one here – the one least likely to get noticed. Lyrics seem to be a kind of mystery tale about someone he meets or dreams he meets on a beach, who he refers to as “my princess of the sand.” Is it the same princess from ‘The Thoughts of Mary Jane’? Stoned again Nick?
Rider On The Wheel…is more poppy in that it mixes strumming with finger picking. One of the better songs here. It’s interesting which song lyrics are ones that I’ve noticed and ones I don’t. This is quite a pretty but unusual poppier one. Never really paid much attention to the lyrics. Quite short and poetic.
Black Eyed Dog…this is in a league of its own again. It’s beautiful and really different – a total showcase of his finger picking talent. It’s so good you sit in awe of it. I don’t know how to describe it. It sounds difficult to play. The lyric stands out too – “A black eyed dog he called at my door / A black eyed dog he called for more / A black eyed dog he knew my name” – he sings most of it in a desperate falsetto and it really gets into your head. “I’m growing old and I wanna go home / I’m growing old and I don’t wanna know.” So, a vision of impending doom then. This goes into an instrumental section in the middle that is singularly one of the best pieces of Nick Drake music ever – a really difficult little melodic bridge full of all sorts of fiddly little notes, then the chorus comes back in. Given that this was written and recorded nine months before he took his own life, the meaning of the lyrics is fairly clear. Quite a dark bleak little number.
Hanging On A Star…”Why leave me hanging on a star when you deem me so high / When you deem me so high?” Again that falsetto comes in and the lyrics seem to be made up of questions. “Why leave me sailing on the sea when you hear me so clear / When you hear me so clear?” This is perfectly placed after Black Eyed Dog, because it seems to explain why there’s no point to living for him. It’s depicts a terrible despair married to a pleading vocal and pretty tune.
Voice From The Mountain…here’s another good one that fits the doomy theme of these last three songs. “Voice from the mountain / Voice from the sea / Voice from my neighbourhood / Voice calling me.” More voices in his head, calling him away. Again, all pointing to his ‘going away’. “Sound on the ocean wave / Sound in a tree / Sound in a country lane saying / ‘Can you be free?” I wonder if these songs were considered too bleak to include on an album proper in his day? I don’t see these songs as throwaways (they’re too good) so much as they were never specifically recorded for an album. Musically, this is the first and only drone track here. He sort of plays the same deep note thing over and over.
So having finished the review, I realize that my track by track descriptions don’t quite explain what’s so great about this album. I think what it is, is the way these songs resonate so deeply afterward. I know these tunes will move through my mind for several more days now, for a couple of reasons: One is that the tunes are very unusual but very melodic and the second is that the subtleties of these tunes combined with the often harrowed voice and/or foreboding lyrics leave faint traces circling in your mind like the concentric waves in water after a stone has disrupted the surface.
This was Alan Bumstead’s 5th Favourite Album of the 90s
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