Nilsson - The RCA Albums Collection

Battered and bruised, but never far from beautiful

The Beatles loved him, of course, hearing
echoes of themselves in his winsome,
classically tailored songs. George Harrison and
John Lennon leapt at the opportunity to be on
his records, and the latter tapped him up as a
drinking buddy on his infamous 18-month
“lost weekend” in early 70s Los Angeles.

But Harry Nilsson was much more than
a Fabs flunky, the boozy companion recalled
in lopsided obituaries following his death in
1994. He was an idiosyncratic song-peddler
who, like many of his early contemporaries
(Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks), embraced
the history and tradition of popular song and
found nooks and crannies for it to thrive in
a modern rock arena.

He was a better singer than either of the
above, blessed with a near four-octave range
that gave freer rein to the types of song he
wanted to write. Having said that, his
commercial high watermarks came courtesy
of covers; Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’ and
Badfinger’s Without You – not to mention an
entire album of Newman compositions,
included here.

This box set comprises the 14 albums he
made for RCA between ’67 and ’77,
augmented by another three discs of hit-and-miss
demos and outtakes. Listening
chronologically, it’s an often bumpy ride,
beginning with a triptych of disarming singer-songwriter
fare that touched upon pop-psych,
introspective balladry and twisted-humour
music-hall cabaret – shades of theatrical
McCartney and the intensity of another fresh
face on the block, Elton John.

The subsequent Nilsson Sings Newman is
perhaps the first sign of the restlessness that
would distinguish the rest of recorded output,
and an album that ultimately did more for the
career of the man who originated the songs.
That was followed by ditties to accompany
a children’s story (The Point) and radical
reworkings of previously released material
(Aerial Pandemonium Ballet), before an
almighty breakthrough into the mainstream…

Nilsson Schmilsson was the game-changer,
A-list producer Richard Perry at the
helm for a multi-million-seller that flitted
between chirpy pop (Gotta Get Up), maniacal
rock (Jump Into The Fire), throwaway novelty
(Coconut) and lush balladry (The Moonbeam
Song). Rather than consolidate on its
success, however, Harry wilfully dismantled
the winning formula on the scattergun and
brandy-drenched Son Of Schmilsson, before
retreating behind an eyebrow-raising (albeit
beautifully sung) collection of richly
orchestrated standards, A Little Touch Of
Schmilsson In The Night.

And so it went on, our hero reacting
against his own most recent work; the
Lennon collaboration Pussy Cats was all over
the place and could feasibly have been titled
“Two Drunks With Money To Burn”, though it
did spawn a gorgeous reading of Jimmy Cliff’s
Many Rivers To Cross. The next few years and
albums brought further diminishing returns,
but the final RCA album, Knilsson, was
recuperative and positive, Harry’s lower
register (a drink-damaged necessity rather
than choice) at its most evocative on All
I Think About Is You.

All this is a must-have for fans, and
a relatively inexpensive way of accessing an
erratic but always intriguing body of work.
Ultimately, it works out as two parts talent
celebrated, one part talent squandered.

4 stars 4 stars 4 stars 4 stars

RCA/Legacy | tbc (17-CD)

Reviewed by Terry Staunton
<< Back to Issue 418