Nilsson Sings Newman

Nilsson once described his work as falling into distinct phases, trilogies of albums which were in some way similar. After the trilogy of albums just completed, with conventional songs, and with the same themes echoing through them all, of childhood and loss, Nilsson Sings Newman is the start of a second trilogy – a trilogy of albums that are, frankly, strange decisions for any artist to make, but which show an artist trying to do something really different.

The album is, as the title suggests, one which consists entirely of songs by Randy Newman, who Nilsson admired greatly. At the time the album was recorded, Newman was barely known – he had released one album as an artist, although he had written songs for Judy Collins, the Everly Brothers and others – but Nilsson was treating him the same way earlier singers had treated Cole Porter or George Gershwin. These days Newman is regarded as one of the great songwriters of his generation, and the idea of an entire album of his work makes perfect sense, but at the time Nilsson was by far the better known performer – and even Nilsson was nowhere near as well known then as he would be.

It was basically unknown for a rock-era artist to do an album focusing on a single other songwriter, and what made this stranger was the way the album was recorded. The instrumental backings are as sparse as it can get – for almost the entire album, the only backing is Newman’s piano – but that doesn’t mean that the arrangements themselves are sparse. Instead, there’s layer upon layer of Nilsson’s backing vocals, creating an effect that’s unlike anything else in popular music. The closest I can think of to this effect is the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile, but there the multi-layered vocals over almost nonexistent instrumentation were in service of a psychedelic spaciness, rather than the luxuriant, crafted, feel of this album.

Nilsson Sings Newman is by any measure I can imagine simply the artistic highpoint of Nilsson’s career. It’s probably not my favourite – that would probably be Harry, though arguments could be made for a couple of albums – but it’s the album which is the most consistent, in performance, arrangement, song selection, and even in sound quality (famously this was an album which got used a lot in shops as a test album for high quality record players).

And that quality is the result of a quite ludicrous amount of work on Nilsson’s part. Nilsson would talk in interviews about how frustrating the recording process was for Newman, who played the piano parts but then had to trust Nilsson knew what he was doing with the vocals. The two men apparently rehearsed for a full month, while Nilsson got to know the songs inside and out, and Newman got sick of playing the same piano parts over and again, without really knowing what was going to go on top of them.

And he really did know what he was doing vocally. There are descriptions of some tracks having up to a hundred and eighteen vocal overdubs – I don’t hear that many on any tracks on the finished album, but it’s not a preposterous suggestion. Nilsson’s leads are often thickened, sometimes so subtly it’s almost inaudible, and the backing vocal arrangements here are astonishing. The engineering work in the final mixdown took five people working simultaneously, in the days before computer-controlled consoles, partly because of the complexity of the arrangements and partly because there were so many vocal tracks that the breath sounds had to be ducked in order not to overwhelm the rest of the music.

The front cover was designed by Dean Torrence, formerly of Jan and Dean, and showed Nilsson driving a car with Newman in the back seat, while the back cover was a photo of the engineers who worked at the extensive vocal sessions at Wally Heider’s studio, Allen Zentz, Mike Leary, Steve Barncard and Pat Iraci, in recognition of the huge amount of work they had to put in on the album.

The album was not a commercial success – Newman tells stories of going into a record store and looking at the Nilsson section and being told by the shopkeeper “this is the one that nearly finished him off,” pointing at Nilsson Sings Newman, though in fact it’s truer to say that Nilsson Sings Newman was rather the prelude to Nilsson’s greatest period of commercial success. And even to this day, the album is often overlooked, even among Nilsson and Newman’s fans.

This is a tragedy. This is one of the great albums in any genre by any performer. I find it almost impossible to imagine a better combination of singer and songwriter, and I can’t imagine anyone who likes either man’s work not getting an immense amount of pleasure from it. Even those who aren’t normally fans of either might be surprised by how much they enjoy this one – Nilsson’s selection of songs is surprisingly sensitive, with little of Newman’s more cynical material chosen (it’s impossible to have a completely uncynical collection of Randy Newman songs, of course, but this comes as close as anything can, I think). And because it’s a collection of other people’s songs, Nilsson’s idiosyncracies, too, are less on display than on any of his other work, while not being erased into mush.

Nilsson and Newman just bring out the best in each other – Nilsson’s performances are more emotionally touching, and less sardonic, than Newman’s, while Newman’s more disciplined writing allows Nilsson to concentrate on those performances. And Nilsson’s vocal arrangements here are better than I’ve ever heard from him elsewhere – they’re Brian Wilson-level good at points, and like Wilson they’re evocative of pre-rock music, quoting from Gershwin and Glenn Miller and weaving those influences seamlessly in.

Nilsson, Newman, and Van Dyke Parks (a friend of both men who would later become a very frequent collaborator with Nilsson) have all spoken about how they were uninterested in making the kind of music that was in the charts at the time.

Newman said, of his eponymous first album (the only one that had been released when Nilsson started his project) “It’s like I’d never heard the Rolling Stones. I thought you could move things along just with the orchestra, that it was somehow cheating to use drums. What Van Dyke and I, and Harry Nilsson to some degree, were doing, it was like a branch of homo sapiens that didn’t become homo sapiens. Homo erectus” and that’s certainly true of this album, which could have been recorded at any time in the previous fifty years – at least once one took into account the use of recording technology to allow Nilsson to be his own group of backing vocalists.

Of the three men Newman spoke about, Nilsson was probably the most commercial artist, and the most interested in being like the Beatles or similar artists, but he still had more than enough sympathy for pre-rock music that he was a sympathetic collaborator for both Newman and, later, Parks.

And here, for the first time in his career, Nilsson allows himself to be an equal partner. The next time wouldn’t be so lucky, but on Nilsson Sings Newman the results are beautiful.

Vine St.

The opening song had been written by Newman for Song Cycle, the debut album by Van Dyke Parks, a mutual friend of Nilsson and Newman (and himself one of the major figures in the LA music scene of the 60s and 70s).

The song starts with reminiscence about an old band that the singer had been in, and talking about a tape of them, and so each version of the song that Newman has been involved with opens with such a recording. Newman’s own version (on the box set Guilty), is programmed straight after his own first ever single, “Golden Gridiron Boy”, and Van Dyke Parks’ version, Harper’s Bizarre’s, and Nilsson’s likewise open with another song.

Parks’ version had opened with an actual tape of an old band of Parks’, singing the old folk song “Black Jack Davy”, while Harper’s Bizarre’s near-simultaneous cover (on their Secret Life of Harper’s Bizarre album, produced by Lenny Waronker, a close friend of Newman, with Newman credited as “assistant”) had been preceded by a Harper’s Bizarre original, “Bye Bye Bye”.

Here Nilsson introduces the song with another (otherwise unreleased) Newman song, “Anita” [FOOTNOTE: the song isn’t separately credited on the album, and has never come up in interviews that I know of, and so could theoretically be a Nilsson song, but the credits for the album say all songs are by Newman], which is done in a straightforward 60s pop style. Unlike Newman and Parks’ versions of the song, it’s not an actual recording from the past, but it still sounds like it could date from 1963 or so. “Anita” is the only point on the album where any rock instrumentation is used. For much of the album the backing is just Newman on piano, with very occasional intrusions of other elements such as vibraphone, electric harpsichord, or bass drum.

The reason for the instrumentation being different on “Anita” lies in the lyric to “Vine St.” – “that was me, third guitar, I wonder where the others are…” – any recording that introduced “Vine St.” would have to contain multiple guitars for it to make sense as the introductory song.

After “Anita” finishes, we go into the song proper, with the line “that’s the tape that we made, but I’m sad to say it never made the grade”. Nilsson’s take on the song, interestingly, misses out the line “I sold the guitar today, I never could play much anyway”, possibly because Nilsson, unlike Parks and Newman, actually was a guitarist (although like them his principal instrument was the piano – and he was nowhere near as proficient on that as either of them).

“Vine St.” is very untypical of Newman’s writing, and is far closer in feel to the songs Parks wrote for Song Cycle, but it does fit with Nilsson’s take on Newman, which is a strongly nostalgic, warm, version of the writer which is a far cry from how he appears on his own records. Newman, as a songwriter and a performer, is sharply cynical, sarcastic, and often angry in a coldly intellectual way. A lot of his songs are extraordinarily good, but he’s mostly a songwriter of the head rather than the heart.

Nilsson’s curation of the material gives a different impression. He brings out a side of Newman that is always there, but is easy to overlook given the more obvious aspects. This Newman is a bruised idealist, whose songs often evoke a mythologised nostalgic past which he’s perfectly aware didn’t actually ever exist outside of his imagination.

And “Vine St.” is a perfect example of this kind of evocation of the past. Looking back at sitting around with friends you’ve lost touch with, playing music together even though you’re not very good. Even here, though, the innocence of youth is portrayed cynically – “lying secure, self-righteous and sure/Why, we’d things to say if the people would pay to have us play”.

While the song was originally created as part of a song cycle, it works very well on its own without the context of Parks’ songs. Nilsson’s backing vocals also quote from “Rhapsody in Blue”, George Gershwin’s wonderful attempt to combine the worlds of art music and popular music, again evoking a world of pre-rock popular music which would come up time and again in the rest of the album.

Love Story

A love song, of sorts, this makes the banal details of an absolutely typical life seem almost enticing – so much so that, as with many of Newman’s songs, other interpreters have missed the point and seem not to have noticed the banality at all (notably Peggy Lee, who in her version changes “playing checkers all day, til we pass away” to “playing checkers in the sun, playing checkers is fun”, which is a change you could only make if you didn’t understand the song even slightly.)

This has always been one of Newman’s best-loved songs, and it’s easy to see why. For all the banality it describes, there is a real affection in the lyrics too, and it’s one of Newman’s most accessible and easiest to understand pieces. This is actually true for most of the songs Nilsson chooses here – he doesn’t go for abrasive or outright offensive songs, or songs dealing with truly unpleasant subjects like “In Germany Before the War” (probably the most beautiful song about child murder ever written).

The lyrics actually do, though, describe well the kind of relationship that most people actually have, and that can be described as a success – “you may be plain, I think you’re pretty” or “some nights we’ll go out dancing if I’m not too tired” are realistic expectations.

Because the real point of the song, of course, is that the boring life described here, one of staying in watching TV together, raising kids who have kids themselves, and eventually growing old together in Florida, playing checkers every day until they die, is actually a remarkably good life by most standards – it’s not the excitement and thrill of romance that many love songs talk about, but it’s a life that doesn’t involve any massive amounts of hardship, one that has no extraordinary difficulties, and one that does presuppose that the couple in it will stay together for the rest of their long lives. Given how few relationships that’s true of, perhaps this is the most optimistic song Newman ever wrote.

Two songs in, and it’s already clear that this album is very special, but at this point Nilsson is perhaps playing things a little safe with the song choices. That wouldn’t be the case with the next one.

Yellow Man

This is a brave choice, as it’s one of the few songs on the album that has a protagonist who is definitely unsympathetic. Or at least, one can sympathise with him, but we know that he is definitely in the wrong.

Newman always describes this song as “a pinhead’s view of China”, and it was inspired by the existence of a book called Our Oriental Heritage, which Newman found preposterous due to the way it attempted to abrogate thousands of years of multiple other cultures’ history as “our heritage” in a single book. Newman took that idea, and created a marvellous portrayal of unthinking racism.

The viewpoint character here is the epitome of the well-intentioned patronising white liberal, talking about a “yellow man” who’s “in a far off land”, but is “just like you and me” even though he eats rice all day – he believes in the family, after all, and has a yellow woman.

The character singing is unbelievably, astonishingly, racist, but he thinks he’s spreading tolerance and understanding, and that he’s being kind even as he’s casually insulting billions of people.

The music follows that pattern, opening with the parallel fifths that in Hollywood musical cliche always mean “someone of East Asian extraction, we don’t really care if it’s China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, or where”, before going into a much more typical Newman style – Newman spent much of his boyhood in New Orleans, and his standard piano style is influenced by musicians like Fats Domino and James P. Johnson. This song is musically very much along those lines, and the occasional intrusion of the Hollywood Asian music just serves to reinforce that this is a song being sung entirely from the point of view of a Westerner, with little real understanding of the people he’s singing about, any more than he has understanding of their musical forms.

Caroline

Probably the most straightforward of all the songs on here, this is also the only one that Newman never recorded on one of his own albums. It was written especially for the album, and it’s an absolutely straightforward love song in waltz time, performed as an extremely slow ballad. It’s a very stately, determined, song, which nonetheless has a charming beauty to its melody. It’s understandable that Newman didn’t ever record it, as his voice is not particularly notable for its beauty, and the sarcastic world-weariness of his voice would not suit something as pretty and sincere as this.

In its stately precision, the music is as beautiful as anything by Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney, the two writers whose work it most resembles. Lyrically, it’s simplistic, at least in the verses (“Caroline/Please be mine/You’re my kind/of girl”) – these are not the kind of words one expects from someone as known for his lyrical subtlety as Newman. The middle eight is slightly more lyrically sophisticated, but really this entire song is about the melody.

It has a more complex instrumental arrangement than most songs on the album, too, featuring several layers of tuned percussion (what sounds like glockenspiel) and a little harpsichord along with the piano (there may also be a handful of guitar notes buried in the mix).

Cowboy

“Cowboy” originally appeared on Newman’s eponymous first album, but had been somewhat overshadowed there, in part because of the song’s somewhat overwhelming arrangement (Newman had intended to give the song an outdoors feel, and so gave it a full film-style orchestration, but didn’t include a piano as you couldn’t take a piano out into nature).

Here the song is stripped to its absolute essentials, and it shines. It’s a beautiful song about someone who is used to living in the open plains finding himself now living in a city, unable to escape from the claustrophobia of having skyscrapers all around him. (And, of course, while a piano in the desert makes little sense, a piano in the heart of a city makes as much sense as anything else).

“Cowboy” was inspired by the film Lonely are the Brave, in which Kirk Douglas tries to live in the manner of old West cowboys, without a permanent residence or identification, but slowly gets trapped by modern society. Nilsson takes the simple, sparse lyric and turns the protagonist into a fully-formed character. He starts the song with just wind effects and his own a capella voice, “Cold grey buildings where a hill should be/Steel and concrete closing in on me”. He sings the whole first verse unaccompanied, with the piano only coming in on the chorus, when Nilsson doubles himself slightly out of phase, creating a truly disturbing effect as he cries “can’t run, can’t hide/It’s too late to fight now/Too tired to try”.

The song ends with a quote from John Barry’s theme for Midnight Cowboy in a nod both to the song’s title and to the film which had recently brought Nilsson such commercial success (and, indeed, that film is also about a “cowboy” who goes to live in the big city, and so there’s a certain appropriateness to the lyric, even though the film is about much else that’s not alluded to here as well) – this was suggested by Nilsson’s wife Diane, and was played on an electric harpsichord rather than the piano that backed the rest of the track.

One of Newman’s most haunting melodies, this is aided in its feel by the wind sounds, generated by a Moog, which start the song even before the piano comes in.

The Beehive State

One of Newman’s more obscure songs, not in terms of popularity, but in terms of what, if anything, the song is about, this song seems to describe a discussion on the floor of the senate or some other policy-making body in the US, in which delegates from Kansas and Utah both briefly describe their own states, giving little in the way of real information. Newman once said of the song that it should have been longer but he couldn’t think of anything else to say, and so much of the discussion about the song has been trying to parse out its meaning – so much so that the prog rock band Procol Harum actually wrote another song, “The Devil Came From Kansas”, mostly inspired by Newman’s song and the lack of apparent meaning in it.

Personally, I think that the discussion around the song is rather missing the point. Just because Newman would often write songs with multiply layered meanings doesn’t mean that that was the only kind of song he ever wrote, and it’s likely that the point of “The Beehive State” is simply its most obvious meaning – two representatives from relatively unknown states talking about their relatively trivial problems on the national stage. It’s not one of Newman’s best songs, but it’s perfectly enjoyable as a minor track.

While Newman’s solo version, on his first album, is sung in a more or less blank manner, Nilsson is emoting all over the place here, taking on the characters of the delegate from Kansas and the “gentleman from Utah” and making the need for a firehouse in Topeka and for the country to know more about Utah seem like the most important matters in the whole world.

I’ll Be Home

A reassuring ballad which was originally written for Mary Hopkin at the request of Paul McCartney, although Hopkin never ended up recording it. Newman never cared for the song, and didn’t record his own studio version until his 1977 album Little Criminals, although he performed it live and it’s on his 1971 album Randy Newman Live.

It’s very much a return to Newman’s pre-”Simon Smith” style, when he was writing on commission for pop artists rather than for his own entertainment, and it’s easy to see why he didn’t like it, even though it’s actually a very strong song – it’s the kind of song that could have been written by any talented songwriter, rather than the kind that only Randy Newman could have written. But as a listener who doesn’t have that as a consideration, it’s very, very lovely.

The most interesting thing about this is probably the almost girl-group backing vocals, answering lines of the song (“I’ll be home” “Oh yes he will”, “I’ll be home” “leaving in the morning, yeah”) which are stylistically incongruous for this song, which is very much a solo ballad.

Living Without You

This song had featured on Newman’s first solo album, Randy Newman (called Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun on early pressings, before Newman’s intense disapproval of this title, which wasn’t his idea, caused his record company to change it to something more appropriate). A straightforward song of love and loss, the difference in Nilsson’s interpretation of the song largely comes from the difference in his vocal tone from Newman’s.

While Newman is an excellent interpreter of his own material, he’s not got the most conventionally pretty voice, and he gets by largely on his personality. And as he’s a sarcastic, ironic, person, he uses a sarcastic, ironic, tone in his vocals, to the point where it’s almost impossible to imagine Newman singing sincerely and not in a character.

Nilsson, by contrast, did have a quite extraordinarily beautiful voice, at least at this point in time, and he uses it to great effect here – here Nilsson sounds truly anguished when he sings “It’s so hard living without you”, while Newman sounds almost as if he’s saying life is easier (and Newman’s vocal generally makes the song suggest that the “hard” in question is physical, that his frustration is more physical than emotional), Nilsson sounds like there’s a real emotional loss there.

But what’s really astonishing about this track is the stacking of vocals – just listen to the end of the track and the rising wordless vocals leading to the massed word “hard” – that’s vocal arrangement of a type almost unequalled in pop music, and all the more impressive because all the parts are being sung by one man.

Dayton Ohio 1903

One of the gentlest songs Newman ever wrote, “Dayton Ohio 1903” is, of all the songs on this album, probably the one that most fits with Nilsson’s aesthetic – “sing a song of long ago…” is something you can imagine being sung in many of Nilsson’s own albums.

The song had first been recorded by, of all people, Wayne Fontana, whose version was released in 1969.

The backing vocals here quote Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”, a song that was of course from many decades after the 1903 of the song’s title, but which sounded a little old-fashioned even at the time MIller wrote it, and which is hugely evocative of an unspecified nostalgic past.

So Long Dad

One of the more unkind songs on the album finishes it off, although once again Nilsson opts to take a more sympathetic approach to Newman’s lyrics than Newman himself would – here, when the son sings “There’ll always be a place for my old man/Just drop by when it’s convenient to/Be sure and call before you do”, you believe it to be a genuine offer, while in Newman’s interpretation of the song you realise that the son is brushing the father off.

But the thing is, this isn’t the kind of approach that covers of Newman’s work so often take, where the singer is unaware of the deeper levels of meaning within the lyric, and thus completely misses the point. Nilsson is doing an actorly interpretation of the material, and he’s making intelligent choices about how to read it. Nilsson is, after all, a writer who is no stranger to double meanings and unpleasant undertones in apparently-pleasant material, and he was also at this point one of the most nuanced performers in the medium.

No, Nilsson has consciously chosen to add layers of meaning, rather than take them away. Nilsson’s versions of these narrators aren’t just unreliable narrators to the audience, they’re unreliable narrators to themselves. Nilsson’s version of the son in this song would no doubt be shocked to discover that his words to his father could be interpreted as anything other than genuine affection – but he would also undoubtedly be quite relieved that his father chose to spend more time on his own.

It’s still an odd choice for a closing track, leaving a little bit of a bitter aftertaste – but then, perhaps that’s the point. You wouldn’t want to make an album like this too friendly, too safe. That would be too much of a cop-out. Nilsson Sings Newman is an easy album to listen to, and an easy album to love, but it’s an album that still invites repeated listening and deep analysis, and ending on a fun, lightweight, friendly song would possibly make that less of a possibility.

One thing that’s very interesting about the placement of the song, in fact, is that this is the track where more than any other the whole recording process is deconstructed. There’s a deliberate decision made to keep in the final mix several tracks of Nilsson saying “more first voice” and “actually I need more current voice, forget the one that’s saying more first voice” and so on to the engineer. This, more than anything else in the album, shows Nilsson’s working – it’s a track that very deliberately shows all the artifice used to create the record, which sounds so simple.

Bonus track:

Snow

It’s hard to understand why this gorgeous ballad was left off the original album, given that the record is under half an hour long. Whatever the reason, the CD reissue restores this to its rightful place in the tracklisting, and it’s an absolute revelation. “Snow” was originally recorded in 1967 by Harper’s Bizarre, a vocal group produced by Van Dyke Parks who specialised in soft-pop reworkings of pre-war songs like “Chatanooga Choo-Choo”, along with recordings of songs by Parks, Newman, and other writers steeped in those pre-war traditions. This song has much of the deliberate construction of the “great American songbook” writers who made up much of Harper’s Bizarre’s repertoire, but is much more evocative than most of them usually managed – craft used in service of evoking a deep emotion, where many of the songs Harper’s Bizarre performed were deliberately light and frothy.

“Snow” is a devastatingly beautiful ballad of loss – the “you” to whom it’s addressed might be a lover who has merely left, but from the overall mournful feeling of the song, it’s just as likely that they have died – certainly that’s the impression I’ve always taken away from the song. And again, Nilsson delivers it absolutely spectacularly. It moves slowly and carefully, with a methodical melody and lyrics that contain almost no words longer than a syllable or two. It’s a precisely calculated song, but one that’s calculated to make you weep.

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