Nilsson: The Point!

After a fifteen-month gap in which Nilsson released nothing at all, The Point! began a massive flurry of activity for Nilsson. Between March 1971, when The Point! was released, and July 1972, Nilsson released four albums — The Point!, Aerial Pandemonium Ballet, Nilsson Schmilsson, and Son of Schmilsson. Three of those four would be Nilsson’s most commercially successful albums — and indeed his only US top forty albums — and two of them (The Point! and Nilsson Schmilsson) are among his most critically acclaimed works.

Yet The Point! seems curiously detatched from the music he would be making even months later.

Musically, it’s very similar to the work he’d been doing earlier — George Tipton once again arranges (for the last time on a Nilsson album of new material), and the style of the melodies is much the same as on Aerial Ballet and Pandemonium Shadow Show, but here the songs are less structured — they tend to be repeated fragments rather than standard verse/chorus/middle-eight structures.

Which is not to say these are bad songs at all — The Point! is a magnificent album — but it’s a whole that’s rather greater than the sum of its parts, and that is in part because of the album’s narrative.

The Point! tells a fairytale-style story which Nilsson had made up after ruminating on the multiple meanings of the word “point” (he was taking a fair amount of LSD at the time) and coming up with a little morality tale. That story became the basis of a TV special — a cartoon narrated by Dustin Hoffman (later home video releases have the narration by Ringo Starr instead), and of this album, which has Nilsson telling the story. Half the tracks here are spoken-word, with Nilsson narrating over George Tipton’s instrumental arrangements of musical themes from the songs.

As such, the songs are in service to the narrative, and so tend not to stand too well on their own. Which is not to say any of them are bad, just that some of them are rather underdeveloped. This is actually something we’ll see on several of Nilsson’s future albums, even his two biggest commercial successes, but it’s apparent that what seems to be happening is that he has good ideas for a piece of music, and then that’s it — there’s less of the interest he had in the craft of songwriting, and particularly in lyrics. He’s moving back to an earlier mode of pop songwriting, one that’s all about the hook, a music of the heart rather than of the head.

While the songwriting is all credited to Nilsson, the storyline for the TV special was actually developed by Nilsson, Norm Lenzer, and Carole Beers, and so it’s reasonable to suspect that at least some of the elements in the story as told by Nilsson were created by Lenzer or Beers . That said, the basic idea was Nilsson’s, and certainly all the actual songs are by him.

The story itself is very reminiscent of children’s books like The Phantom Tollbooth, with many heavily-caricatured characters who exist to make a particular philosophical point (and it’s almost impossible to write about this album without finding oneself also using the word “point”, over and over again, in a variety of different meanings). It’s a picaresque rather than following a more plot-heavy narrative structure, with each individual encounter standing alone and having no effect on subsequent ones. It’s the kind of narrative structure, in short, that can be artificially extended or shortened at whim — the perfect kind for someone trying to create a work that will

Much later, in 1976, The Point! would become the basis of a stage musical, featuring songs not only from this album but from other Nilsson works, and a soundtrack album to that (featuring Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones of the Monkees) would eventually be released. That album is not covered in this series of essays, but anyone interested can find the details in the second edition of my book Monkee Music.

The Point! is a strange outlier in Nilsson’s work generally — as much of a children’s record, if not more so, than a record aimed at adults. Oddly (and almost certainly in part because of the TV special) it became his most commercial album to date, being his first to break into the charts at any level, and peaking at number twenty-five in the US. This was the start of a run of commercial and critical success for him, though it happened at a point when his creative powers were starting to wane along with his marriage, which was at this point showing severe signs of strain.

That wasn’t the only relationship that was nearing an end. While Nilsson and Tipton didn’t fall out, this was the last time the two men would collaborate. After Aerial Pandemonium Ballet, which was essentially a remix album, Nilsson would work with other arrangers and producers, but never return to the “very good friend” who had worked on six albums and a film soundtrack with him.

All songs on the album were written by Nilsson.

Everything’s Got ‘Em
A very simplistic piano-based song, this acts as an overture to the album, introducing the town (“this is the town and these are the people… that’s the way they wanted it, that’s the way it’s going to stay”). Like many of the songs on this album, it’s based on repeating the same few phrases in an almost mantra-like fashion — it’s not so much a crafted song as a couple of fragments bashed together and alternated over a repetitive set of chord changes, played by an unusual set of instrumentation which sounds as much like the arrangements Nilsson’s friend Van Dyke Parks would often use as Tipton’s normal arrangements.

The ’em which everything has got is clarified in the next track — everything in the town has a point, both physical and metaphorical. However, as with much of Nilsson’s material, there’s a real temptation to read a scatalogical or sexual meaning into this, which may well be intended.

The Town (narration)
A piece of narration over a backing track that continues the “Everything’s Got ‘Em” backing. Here Nilsson sets out the basic premise of the story — the Pointed Village, and Oblio’s lack of a point.

There’s a basic pattern to the album, where every musical track is followed by a piece of narrative. These narrative sections manage to fit the songs into a coherent story, but the songs often sound like they were conceived independently and then slotted into place. What’s surprising is that this still works very well — even as the individual songs may not be crafted with as much attention to the sequencing and organisation of the individual elements like verses and choruses as they were before, the overall album is crafted with a great deal of care paid to the macro level of organisation. Half the challenge of making any creative work is not the inspiration or the ideas, but creating a framework, a structure, in which those ideas are placed. Nilsson was always a master of this — even on some of his later albums, where the material is less than his best, he structures the flow of the album in a very controlled way.

These narrative sections are, of course, necessary for the flow of the album, but they don’t really admit of much analysis, so I shall not be dealing with them in any great depth.

Me and My Arrow
Probably the most famous song on the album, this is, depending on whose opinion you ask, either a joyous song about a boy and his dog (which is what the narration sections certainly seem to suggest) or a song about having a penis that’s “straighter than narrow” (an interpretation that’s placed on it by many of Nilsson’s fans, and which I don’t share but which can, just about, be supported by the song’s lyrics). Obviously, this being Nilsson, one can’t completely dismiss the idea that the latter interpretation is correct, given his smutty sense of humour.

I prefer, however, to assume that in this case, even if Nilsson intended the double entendre, he also intended the song to be read on the literal level – and certainly Bill Martin always said that Oblio’s relationship with Arrow was based on Nilsson’s own relationship with his dog, Molly. And taking the song at its face value, this is a quite lovely evocation of the friendship that can happen between a boy and his pet dog, and the companionship one can get from an animal.

Released as a single, this track reached number thirty-four in the US charts. It’s a fun, light, song with one of Nilsson’s catchier melodies, especially in the middle eight, and like much of the album it’s harmonically very simple. Many of the songs here are based on I-IV or I-V changes, and this is no exception, with the I-V dominating the verses, while the middle eight sees a key change up a flattened fourth but a similarly rudimentary set of changes once there ( Em-A7-D-B7).

This simplicity is unlike much of Nilsson’s earlier works, but it works here given the nature of the story being told — this is a story by and for children, and it sounds like one.

The Game (narration)
Another piece of narration, over a continuation of the “Me and My Arrow” backing track, talking about the game of “triangle toss” played by the people of the town, and in which Oblio and his pointed dog have to compete as a team thanks to Oblio’s lack of a point.

Poli High
This is a song which Nilsson used to explain songwriting and song structure in one of his rare live appearances, on The Smothers Brothers’ Summer Show in 1970. This is odd, as the song itself is one of Nilsson’s less impressive works – the lyric mostly consists of the words “poli high, polytechnical high” [FOOTNOTE A “polytechnic” was a type of further education college in the United Kingdom from the 1960s through the 1990s, which awarded degrees but taught technical, practical subjects rather than academic ones. Nilsson was spending a lot of time in the UK in the late 60s and early 70s, and the term would have been in the news there quite a lot as the polytechnics were just starting up.] and “valley low”.

Musically, it’s much more simplistic than one would normally expect from Nilsson, being based on a simple two-chord I-IV repeating phrase (on the “poli high” section) which then goes up a fourth and repeats (for “had a game, had a technical game”). This then shifts up again to the fifth for “Valley high” before moving back to the original changes — essentially making the song a very extended twelve-bar blues.

The lyrics describe, rather abstractly, a game of triangle toss that ends in a draw thanks to rain stopping play. It works well as a part of the narrative, but rather less well as a song on its own. This tends to be the case throughout the album — the songs that are most tied in to the narrative are those which are least impressive as songs, while songs such as “Lifeline” and “Think About Your Troubles” which only have the most cursory connection to the storyline are ones which work really well as songs in their own right.

Luckily, over the course of the album as a whole, Nilsson manages to strike a good balance between the narrative and the songs, creating something which, unusually for a concept album, works as an integrated whole.

The Trial and Banishment (narration)
Another narrative section, in which we hear about how Oblio is banished from the village, thanks to the evil machinations of the Count’s son, who dislikes him because he hasn’t got a point on his head like everyone else. There’s a law that says that everyone in the valley must have a point, and as Oblio doesn’t he has to be sent away, despite almost everyone disagreeing with the decision.

(Arrow is banished too, even though he has a point, as he’s Oblio’s accomplice).

Think About Your Troubles
Easily the best song on the album by some way, this is also the song from the album that is least connected to the general plot of Oblio, Arrow, and the Pointed Village. A simple “circle of life” type song, it tracks the course of a teardrop as it falls into a river, gets swept up into the ocean, gets swallowed by fish which in turn are eaten by bigger fish which are eaten (in defiance of biological plausibility) by a whale, who dies and decomposes in the ocean. The ocean water containing the teardrop is filtered and goes into the water supply, where it becomes part of a cup of tea drunk by the person who cried at the beginning.

Musically, it’s based around a standard three-chord sequence, but with each chord shuffling between the standard triad and the ninth, so adding a little element of harmonic interest while still fitting the general simplistic themes of the album.

It’s a gentle, beautiful, song, typical of Nilsson’s unique viewpoint on life, and simultaneously evokes both deep depression and a moving sense of hope. Nilsson sings the song with a gentle empathy which is quite beautiful, and the whole thing is one of the best things Nilsson ever did.

The Pointed Man (narration)
Another piece of narration, in which we hear about a man who had hundreds of points, “all pointing in different directions”, and so is either the pointless man (because he doesn’t have a singular point) or the pointed man (because he has so many).

Life Line
We move on to the most depressive song on the album, and indeed one of the lowest, most depressive songs Nilsson ever wrote.

“Hello, won’t you throw me down a lifeline/I’m so afraid of darkness and down here it’s just like nighttime” is a typical line from the lyric, and the music matches it – it evokes the feeling of being trapped in a deep hole, simultaneously echoing and distant, but also claustrophobic and enclosed, with the music not moving much and giving the impression of being unable to move.

Much like “Think About Your Troubles”, this uses a simple set of major chords and their ninths, but here they’re used to give everything a cramped feel, rather than the expansive circularity of that song. Even here though, there’s still a certain amount of hope — “won’t you please send down a lifeline”

In the context of the story, the wish for a lifeline is literal — Oblio and Arrow have, literally, fallen into a pit and are unable to get out — but the song itself exists outside that, and one has to assume that, given that this album was written during the beginning stages of the disintegration of his second marriage, Nilsson was at least in part writing about something rather more personal.

Musically, the slow, stately, piano chords prefigure the similar arrangements Nilsson would use for songs like “Without You”, and which would become something of a signature of his work — though this is something Nilsson had already done a little on “Maybe” on the Harry album.

The Birds (narration)
Over a more light, upbeat, version of the musical material from “Life Line”, we get another piece of narration, this one eliding a lot of separate incidents, giving a sentence or two to several different meetings with denizens of the forest — as if Nilsson, in writing it, was getting a little tired of writing the story and was wanting to get through it.

After a little of this, Oblio and Arrow are attacked by a pterodactyl (pronounced terro-dactile by Nilsson, who also seems to think that a pterodactyl is a bird) who lifts them into the air for the next song.

P.O.V. Waltz
This song, more than most of the album, sounds like it was written for an actual musical – a waltz (as the title would suggest), with a fairground carousel feel to it. “Hey, but as long as we’re up here, we might as well stay in sweet harmony” . As with much of Nilsson’s material, there’s an odd mixture of optimism and deep pessimism, combined with a sort of happy fatalism (this is one of the many ways Nilsson’s music resembles that of Brian Wilson, a musician with whom he only briefly and occasionally intersected, but who shared much of his social circle and whose music is surprisingly close to Nilsson’s — Wilson’s childlike expressions of despair in “Til I Die” have a close parallel here).

“Flying high up in the sky I wonder why I think I’m gonna fall”, he sings, and that really sums up a lot of Nilsson’s worldview — and yet even when he’s singing “I think I’m gonna fall”, he’s doing so in a cheerful, light, manner.

There’s actually much less difference between the lyrical moods of this song and “Life Line” than their musical differences would suggest. “Life Line” is about being down at the bottom of a hole (to slightly paraphrase a later Nilsson song) but still experiencing the hope that one might get out, while in “P.O.V. Waltz” the narratorial voice is flying but experiencing a fear of falling. Each extreme of experience contains its opposite within it.

The Clearing in the Woods (narration)
Another piece of narration, with the bird/pterodactyl flying Oblio and Arrow up to a giant egg on a plateau, and the two of them falling asleep, over a backing track based around the “P.O.V. Waltz” musical material.

Are You Sleeping?
A gentle mid-tempo number which manages to sound comforting and familiar. Like much of The Point! it’s based around staccatto chords in strict four-four time — just a keyboard in the first verse, with strings coming in in the “and in the morning when I wake up” section.

The song doesn’t follow a conventional song structure at all — it starts with a sixteen-bar verse, then goes into another section (“and in the morning…”) which lasts eighteen bars (and which refers back to “Me and My Arrow”), before going into a third sixteen-bar section (“there was a time”). It then repeats the “and in the morning” section, but this time extending it to twenty-two bars, before going back to the original verse and then fading with the start of another repetition of “and in the morning”, this time wordless.

Lyrically, this has absolutely nothing to do with the story, and the narrative makes no real effort to incorporate the lyrics — while the “are you sleeping?” goes with the fact that Oblio is sleeping, the rest of the lyrics seem to be about the breakup of a relationship, which is still ongoing but which has become distant. The narrator will always be by your side, but remembers that “there was a time when you were mine”.

While one doesn’t wish to speculate too much about people’s personal lives, the distance in this relationship might have been inspired by the deterioration of Nilsson’s marriage to his second wife, Diane, which would continue for another couple of years but which was already showing some signs of breaking down.

Oblio’s Return (narration)
And here we have the end of the story, in which Oblio returns to the village, and points [ugh] out that everyone and everything he encountered in the forest had a point, if not in the sense of a physical point on their head, then in the sense of a purpose or meaning, and that he too must therefore have a point, and so should not be banished. This is greeted with cheers, and Oblio’s hat is pulled off, to reveal that in fact he does now have a pointed head just like everyone else.

(This is possibly a little bit of a cop-out for a story that’s about the experience of being a misfit — the people all decide to accept him as he is, and then it’s revealed that he’s really just like them anyway, so it doesn’t matter. It would possibly have been better had the story just ended with the villagers agreeing to accept Oblio, and without the cap removal — but then that would have been a slightly less unambiguously happy ending, which might have made the story as a whole less palatable to small children. This is not, after all, a work that is designed to admit of a great deal of analysis, and while it’s interesting to think about what message was being unwittingly sent, the work as a whole is strong enough that dwelling on this at the expense of its many good points would be a mistake.)

Bonus tracks:

Down to the Valley
A non-album single, but one that’s very much in the mode of the material on The Point!, both in style (repetition of a few simple lines of lyric and musical motifs), and largely in the lyrical themes to — travelling down to a valley could very easily have been something that was included in the narrative of The Point!

Musically, indeed, it seems very similar indeed to “Everything’s Got ‘Em”, and seems to have been conceived as a part of this album, but there’s a couple of words that make that different — the “he” in this song “came down from the heavens” to “teach the children how to pray”. Change those lines, and it would fit in with the narrative of The Point! proper, but as Oblio is not Jesus it doesn’t fit the narrative as is.

While it’s built around the same kind of repetition as The Point! proper, this track also highlights more than most how indebted the music on The Point! is to Brian Wilson’s Smile-era music — there’s a definite feel of “Heroes and Villains” to this, especially in the “diddit a diddit” vocal section, and this use of repeated little figures in Nilsson’s music at this time seems like a conscious effort to create something that sounded like Wilson’s use of similar repeated figures in Smile.

The single was, unfortunately, a flop — it’s a fairly defiantly uncommercial piece — but it’s an interesting example of the way Nilsson’s musical mind was working at this point. All of the dynamics of the song is in the arrangement — it’s presenting the same basic musical idea over and over again with different instrumental combinations and numbers of layers of vocals. Even more than Wilson’s music, this sounds like Sandy Salisbury’s version of Wilson’s “With Me Tonight”, which plays the same kind of trick. There may also be an influence here, and in other music on The Point!, from the Beatles’ “You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)”, which is siimilarly repetitive and has a similar attitude towards its arrangement.

There are two other bonus tracks on the CD version of the album — a version of “I’ll Never Leave You” (a song that we will deal with in the essay on Nilsson Schmilsson) and a radio ad for the album.

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