The landscape of American pop music was noisy and heterogeneous in 1978. The soundtrack of 1977’s John Travolta-starring dance drama Saturday Night Fever (which won Album of the Year at the 1979 Grammys) stayed at No. 1 for 24 weeks. It became the best-selling album in history until Michael Jackson‘s Thriller was released in 1982. It rocketed disco — with sumptuous mega-hits like “Night Fever”, “How Deep Is Your Love”, and “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, and Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” — to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Another (markedly different) Travolta blockbuster, 1978’s teen musical rom-com Grease, yielded the second-best-selling album of the year and catalyzed a nostalgia wave of sugary, 1950s-flavored pop and doo-wop thanks to earworms like “You’re the One That I Want” and “Summer Nights”.
Those hits shared airtime with Fleetwood Mac‘s 1977 cocaine-dusted, West Coast rock opus Rumours (which won Album of the Year at the 1978 Grammys). Meanwhile, the release of the Cars‘ edgy debut record, Talking Heads‘ Brian Eno-produced sophomore effort More Songs About Buildings and Food, Blondie’s breakthrough third LP Parallel Lines, and Patti Smith‘s biggest-selling album Easter (which scored a Top 20 hit with the supercharged Bruce Springsteen collab “Because the Night”) signaled punk rock and new wave’s exodus from the underground scenes of Boston and New York and into the broader international consciousness.
Amid that hubbub, Bronx-born singer-songwriter Laura Nyro quietly released her seventh studio album, Nested. Nyro gained fame in the late 1960s as one of the most respected troubadours of her generation (along with contemporaries Carole King and Joni Mitchell) thanks to a string of gorgeous albums — namely her auspicious 1967 debut More Than a New Discovery and its lauded follow-ups Eli and the Thirteenth Confession in 1968 and New York Tendaberry in 1969. Those LPs amalgamated Brill Building pop, smooth jazz, fiery soul, and ambitious avant-rock and featured songs that would become hits for some of the era’s biggest pop music acts.
From 1968 to 1970, the 5th Dimension struck gold with Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Sweet Blindness”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Blowing Away”, and “Save the Country“. During the same period, Three Dog Night, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Barbra Streisand dominated the airwaves with “Eli’s Comin'”, “And When I Die”, and “Stoney End”, respectively. Nyro was only 19 when she recorded her debut record in the fall of 1966, and while her recordings never charted as successfully as King’s and Mitchell’s did, the success of those pop covers — not to mention her talent and prolificacy as a young songwriter in general — earned her a strong cult following in the States.
By the mid-1970s, that following had waned due to Nyro’s semi-retirement from the industry in the earlier part of the decade. After marrying Vietnam War vet David Bianchini in 1972, she moved to Gloucester, Massachusetts, before making a permanent home in the woods of Danbury, Connecticut. For four years, she ceased recording music. (A falling out with music mogul David Geffen — Nyro’s personal friend and manager — due to her refusal to leave Columbia and join the roster of artists at his then-brand new label Asylum Records precipitated her hiatus from the biz).
The year 1975 proved transformative in Nyro’s personal life, one that brought the dissolution of her marriage and the death of her mother, Gilda, from ovarian cancer at age 49. (Nyro would pass away from the same disease, at the same age, in 1997). She returned to recording with 1976’s Smile — a lackluster jazz-pop effort inspired by her newfound fascination with Japanese music. Janet Maslin characterized the project as a “postcard more than an album”, while Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh dubbed its lyrics “sententious babble”.
Season of Lights (1977) — initially a two-disc live set documenting Nyro’s de facto comeback tour — emerged equally flawed and under the radar. Columbia decided to shorten the album, cutting out some of her strongest on-stage work and withholding the newer material Nyro performed in favor of her “classics”. In the words of biographer Michele Kort: “The truncated Season of Lights made little impact on record buyers, spending only five weeks on the Billboard album charts and reaching just No. 137… on the shorter album, she seems to fit uncomfortably in the band’s arrangements.”
For her next LP, Nyro retreated to her home in Danbury with a new lover, Harindra “Hari” Singh, in tow. “One thing I take seriously is having a baby. That’s part of my feminism,” Nyro would say in 1976. Sure enough, Nyro became pregnant with Singh’s child two years later. It was another major life transformation that would directly inform the sound and lyrics of Nested.
Released in June 1978, Nyro’s seventh studio LP is ideally suited for warm weather listening thanks to a distinctly vernal style and subject matter. Themes of birth, rebirth, motherhood, domesticity, and springtime abound in her songwriting. All the while, Roscoe Harring’s easygoing production places the artist in a far more relaxed soundscape than the melodrama of her late 1960s heyday.
Exactly a decade earlier in Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, 21-year-old Nyro belted — against a propulsive backdrop of blaring horns, heavy percussion, and impressive piano playing — about lonely women having “no children to be a grandmother for” and her man’s sudden abandonment forcing her to get a “job on the chamber’s walls of heartache”. Nested, on the other hand, finds 31-year-old Nyro chilled out, surrounded by harmonicas and acoustic guitars while meditating on her recently deceased mother, her new lover, the “seeds of [her] baby” and the “spring night blowing through the pines and the amber gem“.
The generally laid-back lyrics on Nested were reflected in (or perhaps a result of) its laid-back creation, which occurred in the comfort of Nyro’s home studio in Connecticut, far from the rush of New York City. Bassist Will Lee recalled it being a “slow, disorganized project… but in a way that was kind of good because it got more loving care than a lot of quick in-and-out projects would get… we would just build these arrangements from scratch.” Considering Nyro’s impending motherhood, Nested‘s creative process was like a pregnancy: long-gestating, sometimes messy, and organic.
Experimentation and extremity were hallmarks of Nyro’s music during her “classic” period, which probably explains why her albums and singles never flourished on the Billboard charts. Nonetheless, they provided effective frameworks for major pop stars to use for their more “palatable” output. However, the singer-songwriter opts for a noticeably modulated studio sound on Nested.
An early LP like New York Tendaberry could find Nyro singing at a low mumble one moment and screaming at the top of her register the next, traversing vocal peaks and valleys so rapidly and unexpectedly that her lyrics — poetic, playful, and sometimes enigmatic — risked getting lost in the shuffle. Here, her voice is emotive but clear, even-keeled, and soothing. Supported by butter-smooth session players, Nyro sings about her “warm earth mother” and sounds like one too.
Nested‘s opener, “Mr. Blue (The Song of Communications)“, reveals Nyro’s hopeful dialogue with a complicated lover. She speaks the opening lines: “‘Hello?’ He said, ‘Hello?’ ‘I’d like to see you’. He said, ‘Sweetheart, look, you know what happens when we get together. I mean, I’ve heard of liberation, but sweetheart, you’re in outer space’.” Nyro employs interplanetary travel as a metaphor for the arc of the broken relationship she’s trying to repair with the titular “Mr. Blue”, who refers to her as his “copilot” after she tells him she’s been “studying the radar in the sky” and is “ready to meet [his] crew”. She also weaves sylvan imagery through her poetry: “Earth calling you / I’ve been a gypsy fire / Warm desire… Listen like the animals do… Measuring earth and time / the rainbows on your pillow are new”. Listening to “Mr. Blue” feels like stargazing on a balmy spring night.
The lyrics have a hippie sensibility that feels more like 1968 than 1978. “This is the song of communications,” Nyro sings, “sending out peace vibrations / Genuine calls to end our wars.” But flower power makes way for punk rock toughness in the final verse when Nyro tells Mr. Blue, “I’m a fucking mad scientist too / Baby, let the one who loves you come through.”
“My Innocence” hears Nyro grieve the loss of her mother (“Out along the gravestones / The sky is speechless”) before contending with her inamorato’s chilliness (“My innocence / I gave to my cold, cold lover”) against a groovy electric guitar. Once again, she roots her lyrics in the natural world: “Earth under my feet splits in the sun / the nest blows away / the sweet summer days die young.” On the following track, “Crazy Love“, Nyro returns to the stark voice-and-piano formula she used for most of New York Tendaberry. But she trades her vocal acrobatics on that album for an impassioned yet controlled delivery here.
Not that vocal acrobatics would’ve been unwelcome on this number. As one might deduce from its title, “Crazy Love” is highly emotional. Continuing the dialogue with her “cold, cold lover” from “My Innocence”, she addresses the “father of [her] unborn star” and tells him that his name is “in her blood”, that she may “ache behind [his] snake-cold back” after he “walked soft / Talked soft / Like an animal on silent feet / On a block of snow” but that her “will is as strong” as his. In the last two verses, she notes that his “ways of steel” have made her “empty from [his] weakness” but “pregnant with the knowledge and the flame of [his] true love”.
On “Rhythm & Blues” and “The Sweet Sky“, Nyro waxes nostalgic. The former (to quote PopMatters‘ Lisa Torem) “taunts like a Tin Pan Alley tribute — ‘Mama, where’s my silver shoes? Mama, where is my perfume?’ — Nyro playing with lingo like a kitten chasing flailing yarn”, while the latter offers deliciously 1960s girl group-style harmonies. Afterward, she gets funky and modern on the uptempo “Light–Pop’s Principle” and “Child in a Universe“. An electric piano and snappy percussion vitalize the former, while a synthesizer-sounding church organ on the latter’s intro seems designed to soundtrack sunbeams breaking through a nimbostratus after an April shower.
The A-side closer “American Dreamer” finds Nyro in an overtly political mode. Her lyrics read: “There’s nothing we can do / We could not get there in time / It’s too late, she signed on the dotted line / Oh shoot ’em up / Cops and robbers / Oh, America.” One of Nested‘s catchiest numbers, it’s also one of its most confounding. Nyro’s message is unclear, trapped in poetic ambiguity. But with references to police violence and the general state of the nation, one can assume she’s in some way remarking on the turmoil and fatalism of an America still reeling from a decade-long war and salient protest efforts (e.g., the second wave of women’s liberation, the gay rights movement) that experienced as many victories as they did defeats.
In this way, “American Dreamer” foreshadows Nyro’s move toward more politically-trenchant songwriting in the 1980s. On 1984’s Mother’s Spiritual, for example, she would sing about equal voting rights on “The Right to Vote” and the destruction of the planet on “A Free Thinker”.
Still, Nested‘s undoubted centerpiece is the B-side opener “Springblown“, which could’ve been tailor-made for Agnès Varda’s pastel-tinted 1977 reproduction rights musical One Sings, The Other Doesn’t. Once again addressing the father of her child, Nyro croons: “Seeds of our baby / Spring song / Am I weak or strong? / A rose is pressing through a clock on the wall / I can’t wait too long / Every time that I see your face it’s like a warm embrace / To me.” Enlivened by stunning acoustic guitar strumming, it’s Nested’s pièce de résistance, the musical equivalent of cherry blossom petals traveling on a spring zephyr.
By the time its brief but powerful closing number, “The Nest“, (in which Nyro sweetly sings of “a brown shiny nest up in a tree / Maple and warm like the nest in me”) fades into silence, Nested has left a dreamy and maternal impression on the heart. But as with most of Nyro’s work from the late 1970s, critics were vitriolic. Paul Ramball of New Musical Express wrote of the album: “It’ll blend in fine with your wallpaper.” Richard Mortifoglio of Village Voice was more vicious, calling Nested “dopey and weak” and “deeply flawed” before characterizing Nyro as “an amateur erratically touched by some outrageous genius”. The record-buying public responded with similar disdain. It became Nyro’s first album since her 1967 debut to miss the Billboard 200.
Forty-five years on, Nested proves a unique, even radical work in retrospect. In a music industry supersaturated in the late 1970s by disco, punk, yacht rock, and their derivatives (wholly different genres united in their ability to overwhelm the senses), Nyro’s understated seventh album proves a welcome outlier.
In many ways, Nested sounds like a creation from a bygone era — a seamlessly-produced slice of soft, singer-songwriter folk-pop, replete with mentions of nature, colors, romance, heartbreak, and the joys and complexities of womanhood. It deserves a spot on the shelf next to Linda Perhacs’ Parallelograms (1970) or Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses (1972), not anything that came out in 1978. The album’s political and feminist undertones also feel suited to the countercultural zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early 1970s — not a burned-out America still picking up the pieces of Watergate and Vietnam and only three years away from a widespread return to conservatism and reactionary values under the Reagan administration.
Knowing Nyro wrote and recorded Nested as a grieving divorcee pregnant with the child of a man she hadn’t married and would eventually break up with further validates Nested‘s unabashedly feminist nature. It’s also unabashedly feminine, with the singer-songwriter’s lilting voice and low-key arrangements enabling her to bask shamelessly in her tenderness. (Look no further than the LP’s cover art — a sun-kissed portrait of Nyro with a carnation in her flowing brown hair, a peach-colored border embracing her warm and self-assured visage). The young artist who wrote and sang about falling in (and out) of love in the Big Apple on wintry albums like Eli and Tendaberry was now in her springtime era — a soon-to-be single mother residing in the woods of Connecticut and building her nest (musically and literally) the way she saw fit.
Despite its initial critical derision, some contemporary critics have embraced Nested’s genius. In 2008, Terry Staunton of Record Collector Magazine called it “an important album” in which the “precocious talent” on early records like Eli and Tendaberry “fully blossom[ed] into an older, wiser woman observing the world with wry detachment”. A year later, PopMatters’ Lisa Torem noted that Nested “trace[d] Nyro’s silhouette from girl to woman to mother while underscoring her wordsmanship and full-bodied voice”. Most recently, a September 2021 review of the eight-album Nyro box set American Dreamer by Pitchfork’s Sam Sodomsky called the artist’s seventh studio effort “expertly written”.
Out of print for decades, Laura Nyro’s Nested is currently available thanks to that American Dreamer box set. Let’s hope it stays that way.