Nilsson Schmilsson

Nilsson, Harry

album cover

Tart, Smart Songs from a True Rogue

Between the demise of the Beatles and the explosion of California folk-rock in the early '70s, there was a brief period when storytellers like Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman became the locus of thinking-person's pop music. Newman was already esteemed as a genius tunesmith. Nilsson (1941–1994) was a slightly wilder character, a renaissance rogue determined to rescue pop from the straightlaced and the feckless.

Nilsson Schmilsson represents a particular peak of that arty era. A work of sheer swooning-strings opulence, it sits in the shadow of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson's then-abandoned Smile, and the Beatles' White Album. It's also a series of preposterous leaps designed to work on many levels at once: Nilsson's songs include inscrutable oompah marches, craftily arranged dime-store exotica (on the spooky "Coconut," he plays a potion-brewing island medicine man), and outbreaks of vaudeville camp.

These would be novelty numbers were it not for Nilsson's voice, which trembles, constantly, with an inner-demon anguish. Having built his songs into towering mountains of sound, Nilsson sings them in a way that melts every contrivance of the accompaniment. His take on the then-popular Carpenters-style lilting love ode, "Without You," flirts dangerously with crooner bathos, yet somehow winds up sounding like the confessions of a ripped-apart romantic. His agitated rock anthem "Step into the Fire," a Doors knockoff, is similarly facile at first, yet blossoms into a platform for angry ranting. Nilsson's irreverence, coupled with the plain and gorgeous arcs of his melodies, put him in a class by himself. Often unjustly dismissed as a stylist or a mere eccentric, he was the rare auteur who, on this record at least, made circus-sideshow songs strike a nerve the way torch ballads usually do.

Genre: Rock
Released: 1971, RCA
Key Tracks: "Without You," "Coconut."
Catalog Choice: Nilsson Sings Newman
Next Stop: Randy Newman: Twelve Songs
After That: R.E.M.: Up
Book Page: 551

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