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.