(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #7 – released February 1970. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 7/7/2014)
Track listing: Vine Street / Love Story (You and Me) / Yellow Man / Caroline / Cowboy / The Beehive State / I’ll Be Home / Living Without You / Dayton Ohio 1903 / So Long Dad
Harry Nilsson, cult artist? How can you say that about a guy whose music was practically omnipresent for a few years? He had huge hits with “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Without You” (the latter a #1 single in the US and the UK), conceived the story and soundtrack to a well-received animated TV special (THE POINT!) and even recorded a sitcom theme song (“Best Friend”, from THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER). Yet today, the culture at large tends to forget him. Blame his sharp decline in record sales from 1974-on, or his self-imposed exile from the music industry after 1980, or even his death by heart attack in 1994 at age 52.
However, Nilsson’s beloved reputation as a musician among his peers never diminished. Just one year after his death, an impressive array of artists (from Aimee Mann to Ringo Starr) recorded a tribute album of his songs (which was my personal introduction to them). Recently, both a documentary and a biography of the man have further buoyed his status and visibility, but the music itself is all one needs to understand why he was great. Each of his first eight albums, from PANDEMONIUM SHADOW SHOW (1967) to SON OF SCHMILSSON (1972) is worth hearing; even after alcoholism ravaged his voice and fame dulled his quality-control button, his later albums had the occasional hidden gem, all the way up to the music he wrote for Robert Altman’s POPEYE in 1980.
Still, the record of his I return to most often is this one, and it’s an anomaly in his catalog. Although Nilsson was as much of a songwriter as a singer (his career began further slanted towards the former, providing material for pop groups like The Monkees and The Turtles), he’s also observed by many primarily as an interpreter of other people’s work—a label heightened by the fact that “Everybody’s Talkin’” was written by Fred Neil and “Without You” was a cover of a Badfinger song. NILSSON SINGS NEWMAN furthers this perception in that it’s simply what the title says it is: Nilsson singing ten songs penned by Randy Newman, who also accompanies him on piano.
The record’s sound is a far more significant departure than its content. Nilsson’s first effort without producer Rick Jarrard, it has none of his previous work’s baroque, chamber pop arrangements. Instead, Nilsson and Newman eke out the most they can from a basic piano-and-voice template, occasionally adding in another lone element like a shimmering vibraphone (“Caroline”), a soulful church organ (“I’ll Be Home”) or even an eerie, continuously howling wind (“Cowboy”). Nilsson’s vocals, however, are the album’s defining element. He supposedly spent weeks overdubbing his voice, recording as many as over 100 tracks for a single song. Fortunately, the results sound neither belabored nor arch but rather seamless. Nilsson’s vocal pyrotechnics rarely call as much attention to themselves as, say, Freddie Mercury’s or Mariah Carey’s (who had her own hit cover of “Without You”); rather, they appear organically, working with the arrangement. For instance, the first dozen times I heard “I’ll Be Home”, I automatically took Nilsson’s thunderous growl of “Oh, yes he will!”, sung once in response to the song’s title, to be an interjection from a Mahalia Jackson-type gospel singer and not Nilsson himself.
At that time, Randy Newman was also a recording artist—half the selections here appeared in Newman-sung versions on his eponymous debut album two years before (Nilsson previously covered Newman’s “Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear” on his own 1969 effort, HARRY). Newman’s homely croak of a voice made up in personality and self-awareness what it lacked in proficiency and range; given their similarities (an affection for musical theatre and tin pan alley standards balanced by a proclivity towards satirical humor), it’s not unexpected that Newman would eagerly encourage someone with a voice as agile and accomplished as Nilsson’s to interpret his songs. Compare each of their versions of “Yellow Man” (Newman’s appeared on his second album, 12 SONGS, later that year), and you’ll find merit in both. Newman’s emphasizes the song’s irony via a New Orleans trad-jazz backing, his own nearly sardonic vocal and the forcefulness with which the tune’s stereotypically oriental melody appears at the beginning and end (the latter even accompanied by a resounding gong!). Nilsson’s, on the other hand, plays it much, much straighter, sticking just with piano and voice. While Nilsson doesn’t obscure the irony, he doesn’t highlight it either, instead lending to it a wistfulness that brings out ambiguities not discernible in Newman’s version. Both versions of “Yellow Man” are essential, but to divergent ends.
As a whole, NILSSON SINGS NEWMAN is a sweeter, more mellifluous reading of Newman’s sometimes spiky songcraft, but it is also a unique, occasionally eccentric work in its own right. Opener “Vine Street” begins with forty-five seconds of another, unaccredited Newman song called “Anita” that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the album. A full-throttle rocker with electric guitar and pounding piano, it misdirects listeners into thinking what kind of album they’re going to get. Then, without explanation, it suddenly ceases and piano-and-voice ballad “Vine Street” takes over, with Nilsson’s elastic overdubs on the chorus covering a multi-octave range not even a full barbershop quartet could hope to attain. After a few tracks with relatively straightforward arrangements, “Cowboy” breaks the flow by requiring Nilsson to solely provide the song’s melody as he sings over a blowing wind that could have come from the end of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (even if it predates the film by a year). Newman’s piano eventually makes its entrance, isolated chord by chord as Nilsson nearly wails the chorus. The song concludes with an in-joke: an overdubbed electric harpsichord playing the closing theme from MIDNIGHT COWBOY, the film that opened with his version of “Everybody’s Talkin’”. Likewise, stray snippets of studio chatter pop up in the final two tracks, seemingly for no reason other to reinforce that this is a recording—warts, mistakes and all.
So, why NILSSON SINGS NEWMAN instead of 12 SONGS, itself a pretty solid album? Nilsson obviously has a “better” voice than Newman, but that’s not his only advantage. What really made Nilsson so great was that, when he sang, he exuded a personality as emphatic and approachable as his voice was strong. Much like Ella Fitzgerald, his vocal jazz equivalent, he’s both an ideal storyteller and medium, able to make any material his own while still remaining true to the song and its author’s intentions. With Newman’s character sketches, he effortlessly makes us laugh (the gentle wordplay in “Love Story (You and Me)”), cry (the convincingly pleading “Living Without You”) and everything in between. For me, the album hits an emotional peak two-thirds of the way through with the simple, gloriously reverential “I’ll Be Home”, and concludes on a lovely grace note with the understatedly jaunty “So Long Dad”, but even other tracks, like the enigmatic “The Beehive State” or the plainspoken “Dayton Ohio 1903” could conceivably be another person’s favorites. Everything here really is of a piece. And even though the whole album’s over in less than 26 minutes, you don’t feel cheated; you leave feeling satiated from its concentrated, burnished glow.
Next: our first greatest hits compilation.
I’ll Be Home: