This review of the mammoth recent Nilsson box set comes from Alexis Petridis at The Guardian, dated Dec. 19th of last year. I would love to pick this set up one of these days. It looks amazing. Too bad his final Mercury album, Flash Harry, couldn’t have been included, not to mention his later soundtrack work and his final recordings, but there is so much here that it’s hard to quibble…
Harry Nilsson always wanted RCA to make a box set of all his albums. It came too late for him to see, but it’s still a treat.
You could tell Harry Nilsson was trouble from the start: long before it became apparent that he viewed having talent to burn not as a gift, but an incitement to pyromania. If there’s an image of Nilsson fixed in the public imagination, it’s the one on the front of his biggest-selling album, 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson: a blurry shot of him looking like bad news in a bathrobe, disheveled and staring blankly into space. You can virtually smell the hangover.
On cover of 1967’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, the first CD in this exhaustive 17-disc box set, he seems fresh-faced – he was still working in a bank when it was recorded. The tunes are beguiling, the lyrics witty and smart: so much so that you can miss how bleak his songs were. On that album alone you get murder, adultery, divorce, a callous rejection of an ex-lover, and “1941,” which offers a view of parent-child relations of which Philip Larkin would have approved. Its followup, Aerial Ballet – home to his celebrated cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” – opens with a comedy skit involving tap-dancing, followed by “Daddy’s Song,” detailing the trauma of his father’s desertion when Nilsson was three: towards the end of it, comical voices abound. A terrible darkness appears to exist alongside a weirdly manic bonhomie. You don’t need a degree in psychology to work out that might prove a pretty dangerous combination.
As it turned out, it was lethal, but at first, the most striking thing about Harry Nilsson was the sense that he could do anything. He could write songs in his own wildly idiosyncratic style, with often only the slenderest connections to rock: in any era other than the late 60s, when a certain anything-goes climate had been engendered by psychedelia, he might have been writing for Broadway rather than recording in LA. He could sing other people’s songs better than they could, as evidenced by 1970’s Nilsson Sings Newman, and performed 30s and 40s standards without a hint of irony or camp. He could not only score movies, but also come up with a theme song, “The Cast and Crew,” that set the film’s entire credits to music. He had a weird sideline in children’s songs that sounded freewheeling and joyous on the surface, but on closer examination, almost invariably turned out to be melancholy little studies of loneliness: “The Puppy Song,” “Me and My Arrow,” “A Blanket for a Sail.” He had a thing about calypso. His early albums are both dazzling and faintly exhausting. You couldn’t really blame the public for failing to keep up. His biggest hit, a cover of Badfinger’s “Without You,” wasn’t particularly characteristic: it sounds overwrought next to the rest of Nilsson Schmilsson, not least the quite astonishingly beautiful “Moonbeam Song.” He gradually lost the audience it brought him – first with a more eccentric, though scarcely less wonderful sequel, Son of Schmilsson, then with 1973’s collection of standards, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. The bafflement it caused seems remarkable now, when pop artists make albums based on the Great American Songbook as a matter of course. More remarkable still is how good it still sounds in a world awash with latterday versions of “Makin’ Whoopee” and “As Time Goes By”: the orchestrations sumptuous without seeming schmaltzy, his vocal simultaneously fragile and world-weary.
But by then, Nilsson had bigger problems than declining sales, as evidenced by a cameo appearance in, of all things, Michael Palin’s diaries. According to Palin, a night in Nilsson and Who drummer Keith Moon’s company left Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, a raging alcoholic himself, “sounding like a Sunday-school child after an outing to Sodom”. The problem wasn’t Moon, who was merely “a loony”, but Nilsson, “a man bent on self-destruction”. Clearly, it would only be a matter of time before a lifestyle that made you seem the most out-of-control person in a room that also contained Keith Moon started to affect your work.
The real surprise is how little it did. By the time he came to make 1974’s Pussy Cats, he’d managed to permanently damage his voice, and there’s something a little desperate about the way the cover plays up the involvement of his drinking partner John Lennon as producer, but it’s nowhere near as a catastrophic an album as its reputation suggests. For every boring, star-studded cover of an old rock’n’roll classic there’s a Nilsson original like the remarkable “Don’t Forget Me,” another disturbing collision of boozy geniality and anguish that picks through the aftermath of a divorce, shifting from bitterness to sentimentality, its attempts to dispel the gloom undercut by how utterly ruined the man singing “it doesn’t matter, come on get happy” sounds.
Indeed, the rot only really set in on 1976’s … That’s the Way It Is, its dismissive shrug of a title reflected in its contents: a cover of Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” aside, Nilsson sounded like he couldn’t be bothered. Incredibly, a year later, he pulled himself together enough to make Knnillssonn, his only album comprised of entirely original songs, and arguably his best: the ballad “All I Think About Is You” comes wrapped in gauzy strings, the murder-mystery “Who Done It?” is barkingly funny.
Knnillssonn flopped, then Nilsson was devastated by Lennon’s murder and began to refer to himself as retired. He stopped making albums entirely, although he occasionally turned up at Beatles conventions to croak his way through his version of “You Can’t Do That” and solicit funds for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. But a massive coronary in 1993 must have convinced him he didn’t have long left. He suddenly began lobbying his old record label to release a comprehensive box set, and started recording a new album. Neither was finished when his heart finally gave out the following year. He was 52.
He would presumably have been delighted with The RCA Albums Collection, a box set as comprehensive as it gets. There’s an argument that a 17-CD set might represent overkill; that most listeners would be happy with a best-of that rounds up the hits and doesn’t require you to endure Nilsson and Lennon drunkenly setting about “Rock Around the Clock.” Equally, there are remarkably few longueurs, and plenty of great stuff lurking among the discs of unreleased material: collaborations with Dr John, a beautiful cover of Procul Harum’s “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence.” Besides, if it seems a bit much, then perhaps that’s fitting: after all, so was the man who made it.