Today was the official release date (though I received my copy yesterday) of The RCA Albums Collection, a 17-CD set of pretty much everything Nilsson recorded during his short but incredibly productive career.
While the average listener only knows Nilsson for two songs, both covers — Everybody’s Talking and Without You, both of course included here — the fact is that he was possibly the most disgustingly talented pop singer and songwriter of his generation. He had a wonderful, pure voice but also the technique to use it, the lyrical wit and bite of a John Lennon or Randy Newman without the misanthropy of either, and the melodic gift of a Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson.
He was one of the few songwriters whose style is instantly recognisable when his work is performed by others — I remember the first time I ever figured out who wrote a song without being told was when, as a teenager, I watched the Monkees’ Head and saw Davy Jones sing Daddy’s Song. Even though I’d only heard a single best-of compilation of Nilsson’s work, I thought “that sounds *exactly* like Nilsson”, and was right.
Yet strangely he could take anyone else’s material and make it sound just like his. In the course of these seventeen CDs he performs songs by Randy Newman, Stephen Sondheim, Lennon and McCartney and many others, and all sound like Nilsson songs — which says something about both his skill as an interpreter and as a songwriter.
Unfortunately, Beatles envy destroyed his music even as alcoholism destroyed his health, and this collection is a reflection of that — it’s the decline and fall of possibly the greatest talent of his age — but he fell from such a height that even at the end, he was still above most people.
The first two albums, Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet, set out the stall for the first phase of Nilsson’s career. Both are absolutely gorgeous confections of psych-pop, light as a feather but cleverer than they have any right to be, full of the infectious sound of someone who just knows he’s great. There’s not so much as a nod to rock here, these are orchestral pop all the way, with bossa nova, Beatles, and Phil Spector influences merging with pre-war songcraft. If Paul McCartney had done an entire album as good as his very best songs on the White Album, it would have come out sounding like this. Both these albums are here presented in both stereo and mono versions — the mono mixes having only briefly been released on vinyl in 1967 and 68, and presented here for the first time since then.
Harry consolidates this sound. This time Nilsson produces himself, rather than have Rick Jarard do it, but otherwise the formula is the same — George Tipton orchestrates, there are a handful of covers of some of the best of his contemporaries (in this case McCartney, Randy Newman and Jerry Jeff Walker) and Nilsson’s own songs are far better than the covers. This is the Nilsson that became a staple soundtrack of romantic comedies in the 1990s — The Puppy Song , Open Your Window, Maybe — this is music that nobody with ears can fail to appreciate.
Around the time that Harry was released, Everybody’s Talkin’, a cover version of a Fred Neil song from Aerial Ballet, was used in the soundtrack to the film Midnight Cowboy. So of course Nilsson did what anyone would do and release three albums that utterly failed to be what the public wanted.
First up was Nilsson Sings Newman — an album of Randy Newman songs, with Nilsson singing in gorgeous Beach Boys-esque multi-tracked harmonies over Newman’s piano and no other accompaniment. It may well be Nilsson’s masterpiece, and it is certainly the best evidence ever of Newman’s own incredible songwriting abilities (all the songs on here had appeared previously, but Nilsson’s selection and performance gave them the opportunity to shine).
Next up was The Point — a children’s story Nilsson wrote and told, with seven songs, one of which (Me and My Arrow) became a moderate hit. It’s a charming, lovely piece, which later became a children’s cartoon and a stage musical. It’s also Nilsson’s final proper collaboration with George Tipton, the arranger on all his albums up to this point.
And then there was Aerial Pandemonium Ballet an album of remixed and partially rerecorded versions of songs from his first two albums, in versions that are just different enough to confuse the casual listener.
And then comes the fall…
It doesn’t feel like a fall at first. Nilsson Schmilsson sees Nilsson working with an outside producer for the first time in four albums. Rick Perry’s production is very obviously geared towards making Nilsson sound like a solo Beatle — everything from the musicians used (Jim Keltner, Klaus Voorman, Gary Wright) to the amount of reverb applied seems geared to make this sound as much as possible like a John Lennon or George Harrison solo album.
And it does — it sounds like a very good one. It has a couple of Nilsson’s best songs on it, as well as his justly famous cover of Badfinger’s Without You, and many people think it’s Nilsson’s best album. To my mind, though, while it’s an incredibly good album on an absolute scale it’s missing much of what made the earlier albums so special. But it finds a very good balance between commercial and artistic success.
Son Of Schmilsson is what it sounds like. Very much a straight sequel to the previous album, with the same producer and many of the same musicians — this time including two real Beatles (“George Harrysong” and “Richie Snare”). It’s less of a coherent album than the previous one — Nilsson was going through a painful divorce (hence songs with lyrics like “you’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you”) and had started drinking too heavily at this point. It’s still a good album, but it may be the weakest of his albums to this point.
Richard Perry wanted to follow it up with another album in the style of Nilsson Schmilsson, another Beatlesque rock album with strong original songs. Instead Nilsson made what he later considered his best album. He hired Gordon Jenkins, who had arranged many of Sinatra’s greatest recordings, to create arrangements of many of his favourite standards, songs like “It Had To Be You” and “Lazy Moon”, and sang them entirely straight. A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night is absolutely gorgeous, and the best thing he’d done since the Newman album. He interprets the songs absolutely respectfully, but he does interpret them — this is nothing like those “Rod Stewart Sings The Great American Songbook” style nonsenses, it’s far closer to, say, Ella Fitzgerald Sings Cole Porter, someone making the songs his own. It’s a great album, but it would be his last great album.
The selling point of Pussy Cats is obvious — it’s credited to “Harry Nilsson produced by John Lennon” and features both men on the cover. Essentially Son Of Son Of Schmilsson, it sounds more like a Lennon record than a Nilsson one. It only has one truly great Nilsson original — Don’t Forget Me, which is worth buying the album for by itself — and one great cover (a masterful duet with Lennon on Many Rivers To Cross. The rest is a mixture of OK originals and dodgy covers of rock and roll oldies.
The problem is that Nilsson, Lennon, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon and Micky Dolenz were all hanging out with each other and basically having a “let’s see who can drink himself to death first” contest, and occasionally making half-hearted attempts at making records at the same time.
But worst of all, Lennon and Nilsson would get into screaming contests. And Nilsson destroyed his voice — he was hospitalised with bleeding vocal cords, and on this album he sounds somewhere between Dennis Wilson at his roughest and post-Swordfishtrombones Tom Waits. His voice would improve again over the years, but would never be anything like the beautiful instrument it was.
The four albums after Pussy Cats — Duit On Mon Dei, Sandman. …That’s The Way It Is and Knilsson are all very much of a piece — the sound of a clearly great, but unfocussed, talent trying to recapture his old glory. Duit On Mon Dei is the best of them, thanks to Van Dyke Parks arranging all the instrumental parts, but has the weakest vocals, while …That’s The Way It Is relies mostly on covers but has some nice vocal moments. Knilsson is most interesting for the bonus tracks, which feature some tracks with Dr. John on piano from a half-completed album the two were going to do together, as well as a rather lovely song written by, of all people, Gene Wilder.
Those four albums I’m less familiar with than any of the others, but there’s a reason for that. They’re all pleasant enough, and there are lots of tiny little wonderful moments, but I’d trade all four albums for a single song as good as Open Your Window or a vocal as good as his version of Vine St.
Luckily I don’t have to, because there are three bonus CDs in this set, all containing tracks from the pre-Pussy Cats sessions. And nearly every track on them is wonderful. Between those CDs and the bonus tracks on every album, there are 123 additional tracks here. Fifty-five of those are previously unreleased, and even the previously released tracks are mostly remixed, so songs like Miss Butters’ Lament have instrumental parts to the fore that weren’t audible on earlier releases.
The bonus CDs are an absolute treasure trove of wonderful music. Unreleased songs from the A Little Touch sessions (wonderful versions of You Made Me Love You and Always), the utterly astounding piano demo of Without You, demos recorded for the Monkees before his first album, versions of McCartney’s Blackbird and Lennon’s Isolation, fully-orchestrated songs recorded for Aerial Ballet and Pandemonium Shadow Show but left off… there is magical music here. You could give someone just the three bonus CDs from this box and they would be able to tell exactly why Nilsson was so great.
I simply cannot praise this set enough. Thirteen of the seventeen CDs are essential for any music lover, and even the other four have some very strong moments. This is the perfect collection for anyone who has even a passing interest in Nilsson’s music — very few artists have such depth in their catalogue. Andrew Sandoval (who seems to be involved with every great archival project at the moment) has done a beautiful job of compiling and annotating this music, and Steve Stanley (who also seems to work on everything worth buying at the moment) has done an equally great job of creating a package that fits well with the visual style Nilsson’s best albums (mostly designed by Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean) had.
With every CD in a reproduction LP cover, and a short but informative booklet, this is everything a box set should be.
After the material on this box set, Nilsson was dropped by his record label. He recorded one final proper album, Flash Harry, which was only released on vinyl (and I believe even that only in Japan). That’s going to be issued on CD for the first time next month, and will be worth picking up. After that, he wrote the wonderful songs for Robert Altman’s Popeye film, and seemed to be going through something of a creative renaissance. But then the death of his friend John Lennon affected him so badly that he gave up music almost entirely during the 1980s, and devoted his time to political campaigning for handgun control. The only tracks he released in the 80s were a few covers of Yoko Ono songs for a tribute album. Those are as decent as you can imagine them being. He was working on a new album, still unreleased and unfinished, when he died in 1994.