Once touted by the Beatles as their favorite act, Harry Nilsson was one of pop music’s most enigmatic figures: a singer/songwriter who achieved early commercial success but whose career was also stylistically diverse.These days since his death in 1994 he seems more like a cult figure and his stature grown; in his prime, he was definitely popular thanks to two songs—“Everybody’s Talkin,’” from the film Midnight Cowboy; and the overwrought ballad “Without You.”
As indicated on this latest compilation, Nilsson didn’t live off of his singles success—he branched out into quirky sounds (“Me and My Arrow,” “Daybreak”) and romantic ballads (“Remember (Christmas)”). There is also “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” (a close cousin to “Everybody’s Talkin’”) and his own “One,” famously covered later by Three Dog Night. He also lived up to his ‘Schmilsson’ alter ego with some of his eccentric tunes such as “Coconut” and “Spaceman.” That’s what made Nilsson hard to pin down—he was always followed his own muse even if it resulted in diminishing commercial returns. This compilation confirms his status as an unconventional artist in pop music.
And Nilsson continued to be unpredictable with Son of Schmilsson, the 1972 follow-up to his commercial breakthrough Nilsson Schmilsson. Clearly this album, in the guise of his “Schmilsson” persona, reveals the artists’ eccentricities like on the opener “Take 54,” the lovely “Turn On Your Radio,” the country parody of “Joy,” and the defiant, angry f-you of “You’re Breakin’ My Heart.” In addition to its best-known tracks Spaceman and “Remember (Christmas),” the album also contains the cheerful if morbid “I’d Rather Be Dead” (sung by actual retirees—what were they thinking?).
Nilsson was also a pioneer of sorts. Long before pop artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart and Joni Mitchell late in their careers has tackled the standards, Nilsson, who was still in his commercial prime, recorded an album of them, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973), with the help of two unlikely collaborators: producer Derek Taylor (the legendary Beatles publicist) and arranger Gordon Jenkins. And for the entire albums, Nilsson rendered the standards just like Crosby, Sinatra, and Vallee with sincerity and romanticism, a far cry from the irony and humor that marked his previous works. It’s a record to listen to with dimmed lights and cigarette in tow.