Counterbalance: Harry Nilsson's 'Nilsson Schmilsson'
Doctor, ain't there nothing I can take? Doctor? To relieve this bellyache? A 1972 smash (however unlikely) -- and the 938th most acclaimed album of all time -- is this week's Counterbalance. Jump into the fire and join us!
Klinger: So for those of you who are paying attention, we're trying something different around here. When we were covering the Great List in numerical order, we just took turns. Then, once we started talking about critical acclaim using our own choices, we each led off talking about our picks. Now, in an effort to shake things up a little bit, we're forcing the other one to start talking about our selections first. Flying in blind, without a net. For those of you who aren't paying attention, you can skip this preceding paragraph.
Except I'm afraid our inaugural effort will be a little anticlimactic, Mendelsohn, because the album you've chosen is one that I'm not only intimately familiar with, it's an album I actually choose to listen to in my spare time. Nilsson Schmilsson is for some reason the only Harry Nilsson album on the Great List, clocking in at a criminally underrated No. 938, which tells me that something has gone horribly wrong around here. It may have been his commercial breakthrough, and it did birth two superhits with "Without You" and "Coconut", but it's hardly the lone tentpost in Nilsson's career. The album represents a break from his earlier, more baroque albums, placing him smack dab in the juicy mainstream center of the 1972 pop scene. And I guess anything that puts a talent like his in the public consciousness is a net gain for society. But I'd hate to think that Nilsson will be best remembered for singing a couple hit songs and being next to John Lennon when he punched a waitress. He was a gifted songwriter and a hell of a singer who deserves a lot more acclaim in his own right. Is that what led you to pick Nilsson Schmilsson, Mendelsohn?
Mendelsohn: For the most part, yes, that is why I chose this album. When it came time to pick records for this round of Counterbalance, I was having a hard time selecting my entries. Nilsson Schmilsson has been hanging on my wall for the better part of a decade, so it seemed like an easy decision. I like to look at the cover, it makes me feel better about myself. I also had a sneaking suspicion that you might be a fan of Nilsson as well. And who wouldn’t? This cat wrote some incredible songs and has a voice that, in my opinion, stands unmatched in both strength and beauty. Plus, on Nilsson Schmilsson, Harry shows that he knows how to rock. After cutting his teeth on baroque pop and hitting it big with the song “Everybody’s Talking", Nilsson transitioned to more rock-oriented material. And while I find the vocal his soft pop hits to be very enjoyable, it is the songwriting and forward thinking rock songs like “Gotta Get Up", “Driving Along", and “Jump Into the Fire", that make me return to this album over and over again.
As you mentioned, Nilsson is one of those artists who is criminally underrated, both for his material and the influence he had on shaping popular music. Yes, he was famous for spending too much time drinking with Lennon during his Lost Weekend period. But Nilsson was one of the Beatles’ favorite artists. You can hear the Beatles influence in Nilsson’s music and in turn hear Nilsson’s influence in the later Beatles records.
Klinger: Hmm, Nilsson's influence on the Beatles. That's a strong statement -- one I'd be hard pressed to agree with, but we've got bigger fish to fry this week. You are correct when you say that this was the debut of Harry Nilsson, SuperSlob, though. We're a far cry from the dandified chap who hung around the set of The Courtship of Eddie's Father in a velvet suit. And you're correct in saying that he had an absolutely astonishing voice. Really digging into "Without You", a song I've sort of meh'd my way through before, I'm hearing every nuance of his delivery, each flutter through the vibrato and all the tiny melismas he uses to get at the melody. It's something that few rock vocalists even aim for. But at the same time, he reveals his ability to rock with an almost unprecedented range and palette of vocals.
But the pop perfection of "Without You" underscores the notion that Nilsson landed himself in the mainstream despite his best efforts. The other singles from the album "Coconut" and "Jump into the Fire" were total anomalies in the pop world. "Coconut" is a delightful pop novelty, while it's worth noting that Martin Scorsese picked "Jump into the Fire" for the Goodfellas helicopter scene because in his mind that song "is cocaine". (Incidentally, the bass that's being studiously detuned over the course of the recording belonged to none other than Herbie Flowers, who also played bass on Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side". 1972: The Year of Herbie Flowers.) Other songs on the album could have been hits, but he had to say that the sailor in "Gotta Get Up" used to "pound her for a couple of days" and that the moonbeams were on a fence with "bits of crap around its bottom". Remarkable!
Mendelsohn: I think you’ve done an excellent job of highlighting the true rareness at the heart of Nilsson’s art. For a lot of artists, there is a push and pull between commercial success and artistic integrity. Some musicians cannot walk that line, because, in reality, it’s a tightrope act that a lot of people simply can’t stomach. If everyone in the music industry was walking the tightrope above the crowd, Nilsson would have been smoking cigarettes with the clowns and doing blow with the lion tamer. Nilsson just didn’t care. He did whatever he wanted. He didn’t tour because he didn’t feel like it. You need a picture for the album cover? Just take it now. Yes, I know I’m in a bathrobe. The man was an antithetical pop phenom. He could have been the biggest star in the world -- he had the voice, the talent, even the looks. What did he do instead? Whatever he wanted. And it worked. With his early success he proved he could be a bankable commodity and the record industry started throwing contracts at him. So what did he do then? He wrote pretty little pop songs with ribald lyrical content. He recorded an album of Randy Newman covers. He made a record with John Lennon in an attempt to rehab both of their images. (And, by the way, I think Lennon saw Nilsson as the artist he always wanted to be. We can argue about it later but Nilsson had immense talent and a gift for pop music that matched or exceeded Lennon’s. Combined with Nilsson’s devil-may-care attitude, it isn’t hard to see why Lennon was so fascinated with Harry’s work and fought for him at ever step simply because he knew Nilsson had a penchant for writing beautiful material that the record companies had no idea what to do with).
Klinger: That, my friend, is one fascinating unprovable theory. Let's review Pussy Cats some time and we can discuss it in greater detail.
Mendelsohn: Nilsson Schmilsson doesn’t make any sense unless you understand that it doesn’t have to. The rock of “Jump Into the Fire” rubs up against the balladry and ornate orchestration of “I’ll Never Leave You". Odd pop numbers like “Coconut” and “Early in the Morning” punctuate a setlist that rocks or sways or swaggers depending on where you drop the needle. “Down” starts with the signature Nilsson bounce before descending into a full-on soul number as the horn section propels the song for a short-lived three and a half minutes of bliss. “Down” was tailor made for success amid the 1970s rock excess, it could have been one of the hits you spoke of earlier. But like everything on this record, it just didn’t fit in the emerging rock scene of the early 1970s. Nilsson Schmilsson was either five years too early or 20 years too late. It seems to exist outside of time -- a testament to the roots of pop music yet so forward thinking.
Klinger: Pop music -- referring here to the actual chart hits of the day -- is chock full of vagaries, though. Did Nilsson crash into Casey Kasem's Top 40 pool party in a filthy bathrobe and a carload of drunken circus people, or was his success every bit as inevitable as Three Dog Night's? It's hard to say, although Nilsson appears to have achieved Grammy-level heights with only nominal alterations to his signature sound. True, it's slick, but the shift in production over from Rick Jarrard to Richard Perry doesn't terribly detract from the oddities that abound throughout Nilsson Schmillsson. Listen to the oddly dissonant string arrangements on closing track "I'll Never Leave You" for proof. It's a song that could have been a minor follow-up to "Without You", but instead it's downright jarring in places.
And that's a big reason why Nilsson has retained so much of his cred. He played by his own rules and followed his own muse. After (quite nearly as good? is it just me?) Son of Schmilsson, Nilsson followed up with A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, a collection of standards arranged by noted schmaltzmeister Gordon Jenkins. Standards albums are practically required of aging rockers, but Harry beat them all to it, in part because he did it as a sheer labor of love. Pop was pop to Nilsson, or perhaps more accurately, music became pop in Nilsson's hands.