The rain is bouncing off the flat roof outside my window as I write this. Yep, it’s definitely autumn now. Let’s get into what may be the finest – and most autumnal – song of the British folk-rock revival
When I was sixteen or seventeen and began hearing about Nick Drake and reading about him in music magazines (younger readers note: this was in the late 1990s, and at that point – in the UK at least – the majority of homes didn’t yet have an internet connection so hearing new music was not as simple as it is now, and frequently involved parting with hard currency), the consensus seemed to be that the album to begin with was Bryter Layter. It’s indisputably a fine record, and my life would be much the poorer for not having heard Hazey Jane II, At the Chime of a City Clock and Northern Sky, yet once I was familiar with all three of his completed albums, I connected most deeply with Pink Moon (in its entirety – it’s a short album, with nothing that you could excise without harming the whole) and a few tracks of his debut, Five Leaves Left (Three Hours, Cello Song, Saturday Sun and of course River Man).
If pushed, I’d have to judge FFL the weakest of Drake’s albums. There are tracks that are precious or bombastic (Way to Blue, Fruit Tree) in a way that he grew out of, and one that breaks the twee-o-meter (Man in a Shed). Yet when Drake gets it right on his debut, he produces the music that is somehow most characteristic of himself, that seems to come from deepest within him; if someone were to ask me to play them one song that epitomised the sound and mood of Nick Drake’s music, it might well be Cello Song.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that while Bryter Layter may have become the canonical favourite of those who like their Nick Drake cosmopolitan and baroque, and Pink Moon is the pick of those who like their Drake uncanny and skeletal, nothing in his slim but important body of work can match River Man.
This does seem to be becoming the prevailing critical consensus. In his 1999 Mojo piece on Drake, the late Ian MacDonald devoted more time to River Man (‘one of the sky-high classics of post-war popular music’) than any other song, and in Electric Eden, Wire editor Rob Young, like MacDonald (to whom he may be indebted) spends time unpacking the song’s metaphysics, declaring ‘There’s nothing on Five Leaves Left to match River Man, which finds Drake at his most transcendent.’ Of Drake’s oeuvre, only Bryter Layter’s Northern Sky gets anything like the time and analysis that Young dedicates to River Man (merely an observation, not a complaint – the task Young set himself with Electric Eden was huge, and to have discussed every notable song in depth would have resulted in a book several thousand pages long, rather than 500). The point is that the two most noteworthy critics who have in recent years turned their gaze on British folk music and its 1960s revival lighted upon River Man as the supreme example of Nick Drake’s genius. It may not be entirely characteristic of Drake (principally because its magisterial string arrangement is by Harry ‘Lord Rockingham’ Robinson, not by Robert Kirby, Drake’s usual collaborator), but if there’s one Nick Drake song I’d like readers to go and seek out if they’ve never heard it before, River Man is it.
Harry Robinson’s work may be most familiar to readers from the many Hammer films he scored, and the music is frequently the best thing about those movies. But curiously, unlike Drake himself, Robinson had known chart success: as Lord Rockingham, in 1958 (with the deathless number-one single Hoots Mon), and had been a fixture of the British pop scene for years before ever working with an Island Records folkie (as well as Drake, Robinson worked with Sandy Denny and John Martyn). Like all good pros, then, he was adept at tailoring his gifts to the situation while producing fully evolved, emotionally engaging (and engaged) music rather than mere hackwork. The difference, to be blunt, between someone like Jim Keltner on the one hand, and Anton Fig or Kenny Aronoff on the other.
Any songwriter would feel blessed to have an arranger such as Harry Robinson on their team, and I wish Drake had used him more. As it is, we have River Man, and its spine-tingling second-verse string part. Drake used Robinson after Kirby tried and failed to write anything satisfactory, defeated by the circularity of the chord progression and the five/four time signature. Kirby’s analysis of Robinson’s work is acute:
I could not for the life of me work out how to write a piece of music that didn’t stagger along like a spider missing a leg, how you crossed over and missed the bar lines. But Harry’s string arrangement is scarcely in 5/4 – it goes along like a limpid river all the way, moving regularly and crossing over all the beats and the 5/4 with it.
So a technical and formal triumph, but an emotional one too. Robinson got the song, got the metaphor. His music alternates between static block chords in the ‘Gonna see the River Man’ sections, and the drama of the second verse and coda, where the strings surge and draw back, hold heavy-vibrato chords and clash rhythmically with themselves: this is the song’s moment of crisis, when Betty, the song’s subject, reported on by Drake’s narrator, gets a glimpse of the world beyond the river and, overwhelmed by it, rejects it, returning to the world of mundane sense experience:
Betty said she prayed today
For the sky to blow away
Or maybe stay
She wasn’t sure
For when she thought of summer rain
Calling for her mind again
She lost the pain
And stayed for more.
The coda of River Man, where Drake repeats the line ‘Oh, how they come and go’ (as MacDonald points out, recalling McCartney’s ‘Ah, look at all the lonely people’ from Eleanor Rigby) and the strings once again rise and fall and hold tremulous chords, is the deepest and most moving passage of any of Drake’s songs. It’s a masterpiece that drew next-level contributions from everyone who worked on it. If you don’t already know it, go listen now.
Nick Drake, 1971 (Keith Morris)
For anyone who’s interested in hearing some contemporary acoustic folk rock with double bass, here’s a link to a recent song of mine: