“Nilsson’s my favorite group,” the ever-witty John Lennon once famously quipped about his friend, singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson. Lennon would have been delighted to receive this gorgeous box set of seventeen CD’s, spanning Nilsson’s RCA recording career from 1967 to 1977. The CD covers are lovingly reproduced from the album artwork, stacked snugly in the minimal tan and brown fold-out box (designed by Steve Stanley). Presenting the CD’s as miniature reproductions of the original albums is an appealing aesthetic choice (especially for vinyl junkies), but the text is often too tiny to be legible. The accompanying booklet solves this problem by listing the song titles, credits and extensive liner notes in clear, readable print.
Many of the CD’s have been released previously as expanded editions over the years, with bonus tracks, outtakes, demos and radio spots. However, the box set includes quite a few additional unreleased tracks, including the five demo tracks recorded for the Monkees on Nilsson Sessions 1967-1968: “1941,” “Signs,” “Cuddly Toy,” and “This Could Be The Night.” Also previously unreleased, from Aerial Ballet, are alternate versions of “One,” “Together,” “Bath,” and “I Said Goodbye To Me.” Liner notes are written by Andrew Sandoval, who worked on previous Nilsson reissues; he also compiled and produced the box set with Rob Santos of Legacy Recordings. Sandoval provides a brief yet detailed history of each album, including the three Nilsson “sessions” CD’s of bonus material containing 58 tracks (half of which are previously unreleased).
In just ten years Nilsson transformed from a clean-cut, clear-voiced pop craftsman, to a grizzled, bluesy, world-weary troubadour. From his RCA debut album Pandemonium Shadow Show in 1967 to 1977’s Knnillssonn, Nilsson’s material ranges from smartly-crafted pop, to melancholic ballads, to drunken meanderings, to feral rock’n’roll, sometimes all on the same album. There is the flawless beauty of Aerial Ballet, which includes the hit from the film Midnight Cowboy, “Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me” (written by Fred Neil), as well as the painful yet musically upbeat tribute to an absent father, “Daddy’s Song.” “Good Old Desk” is an ode to a dependable work pal: “My old desk doesn’t arabesque / In the morning when I first arrive / It’s a pleasure to see / It’s waiting there for me /To keep my hopes alive.” Fans of both Nilsson and Randy Newman will appreciate Nilsson Sings Newman, in which Nilsson recreates Newman’s musical stories in his crystal-clear, angelic voice (a vocal quality Newman, for his many talents, did not possess).
Nilsson’s career reached its peak with the commercial smash, Nilsson Schmilsson. As with “Everybody’s Talkin’,” he once again had a huge hit with a song he didn’t write, the heartbreaking ballad “Without You,” written by Badfinger‘s Pete Ham and Tom Evans. He also had a hit with the light, calypso-flavored “Coconut.” “Let The Good Times Roll” and “Jump Into The Fire” (which rocks a bit more than most of Nilsson’s polished, piano-driven, Tin Pan Alley-influenced compositions) are also well-known Nilsson classics. My personal favorite off this album is the sleepy “Moonbeam Song;” one gets the impression that Nilsson wrote it while lying in bed, drifting off: “Have you ever watched a moonbeam / as it slid across your window pane / or struggled with a bit of rain / or danced about the weather vane . . . ”
After Nilsson Schmilsson, the albums are hit-or-miss. Son of Schmilsson has its moments, and while it’s true that Nilsson Schmilsson is a tough act to follow, Son feels burned-out, let-down; his once-perfect harmonies out of key on “The Lottery Song.” Intelligent, literate, witty lyrics are replaced by amusing yet crass observations: “You broke my heart, so fuck you,” “I’d rather be dead than wet my bed.” Fortunately, the album of orchestrated standards that follows, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, is like a sweet, sentimental balm to soothe the harshness delivered by Son of Schmilsson, offering beloved classics like “It Had To Be You,” “As Time Goes By,” and “Nevertheless (I’m In Love With You).”
The notorious album Pussy Cats was produced by John Lennon and recorded during his infamous “lost weekend” period in Los Angeles. Expectations of the genius pairing of Lennon/Nilsson were perhaps unrealistically high, and the initial album reviews were not favorable. The partying among Nilsson, Lennon and pals at the time is legendary and is reflected throughout the recording; however, despite the madness (and sometimes because of it), the album has its shining moments. Opening track “Many Rivers To Cross,” a Jimmy Cliff cover, is achingly melancholic, resembling Lennon’s “Mind Games” in feel. The drunken rambling of bonus track “The Flying Saucer Song,” like most drunken ramblings, is simultaneously hilarious and depressing. A primal version of Dylan‘s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” could easily be a track off of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. (In fact, the album is often more Lennon in tone than Nilsson.) Even the lighthearted cover of “Loop The Loop” is followed by the overwhelmingly somber and beautiful “Black Sails”: “Black sails in the moonlight / black patch on your eye / you shiver your timbers, baby / and I’ll shiver mine.” The album alternates in a manic-depressive way between upbeat oldies covers and sad, tender ballads; however, the oldies seem like filler, and come off like forced cheerfulness. It’s the songs like “Many Rivers To Cross,” “Black Sails” and the exquisite “Don’t Forget Me” (on which his damaged voice lends a heartbreaking vulnerability) that stand out on the album. They’re proof that, even while drunk out of their minds, Lennon and Nilsson still managed to record some outstanding tracks.
On Duit On Mon Dei, the singer aims for more bluesy sound, heading into Randy Newman/New Orleans territory. Sandman is a better album; it’s a return to his rich harmonies and elegant arrangements, and it seems more focused than some of his 70’s efforts. Better still is Knnillssonn, his strongest effort in years. Although his voice has dropped about an octave since the early days (and almost resembles Leonard Cohen at times), it is clear and strong, and the songwriting is top notch. “All I Think About Is You” is a haunting orchestral ballad: “I’ll stand an hour knocking / knowing that my heart is mocking me / she doesn’t live here anymore.” “Who Done It” is a playful take on murder mysteries, and Nilsson has fun with its rhymes: “There were thirteen people in the house / The owner and his wife / the butler and his wife / Cook with her knife / a couple named Smythe.” Bonus tracks, such as a cover of the standard “Shuffle Off To Buffalo,” feel intimate, as if the listener is hanging out in Nilsson’s living room, listening to him bang out his favorite classics on a piano.
The sessions discs contain gems that will appeal to ardent Nilsson fans: acoustic guitar demos of “1941” and “Cuddly Toy;” a piano version of “This Could Be The Night,” and a somewhat psychedelic (perhaps unintentionally so, due to the odd flange effect) version of “Sister Marie.” Also included is a faithful rendition of Procol Harum‘s “She Wandered Through The Garden Fence” and a demo of “One” (more understated and moving than Three Dog Night’s hit version). “The Cast and Crew,” from the soundtrack of Otto Preminger’s 1968 film Skidoo, is hilarious; Nilsson recites the film credits at a rapid-fire pace over a manic musical piece. I much prefer the version of “Joy” presented on Nilsson Sessions 1971-1974 to the comical recording on Son of Schmilsson, which is recited, not sung, in a thick cowpoke accent; on the Sessions version, there’s more emotional impact when he simply sings the song straight, with no goofy country affectation: “Joy to the world / was a beautiful girl / but to me, Joy meant only sorrow.”
Nilsson completists will be thrilled to have what a friend of mine accurately described as “all that genius and insanity in one box.” His stellar albums outnumber the less-than-perfect ones; even on those records where he’s not at the top of his musical game (and despite his best efforts to self-destruct), the moments of brilliance still shine through.