Music Features

Overlooked Albums #32: Harry Nilsson - Nilsson Sings Newman

Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman: eminent figures in music history, mavericks that gave new shape to the pop form. Two brilliant artists working together on a unique project. This subtle work has Nilsson bringing his interpretive gift to a great collection of Newman songs, with the master himself backing Nilsson on piano. In hindsight, it’s a golden pairing, but at the time Nilsson Sings Newman was ignored by the record-buying public like dust under the rug.

Back then, neither Nilsson nor Newman had sold many albums. Of the two, Nilsson had more clout, having scored hits with Everybody’s Talkin’ and I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City, and as the songwriter of Three Dog Night’s One. A diverse number of artists had covered Newman’s songs, such as Dusty Springfield, Jerry Butler, and Harpers Bizarre, but he had no American hits under his belt. His critically-praised first album was a non-seller, and his second, about to be released, was in danger of meeting the same fate. Nilsson was enthusiastic about his music and believed he could garner a wider audience. Instead of bolstering his own career, he took on the task of bolstering Newman’s, contrary to the wishes of his record label, but Harry Nilsson answered to no one. 

Vine St. sums up the style of the album and its themes. It opens with a contemporary pop melody that is supplanted by old-timey piano chords, with Nilsson singing, “That’s the tape that we made, but I’m sad to say it never made the grade / That was me, third guitar; I wonder where the others are”. Nilsson eschews the Aaron Copland frills of previous versions for a sparse arrangement that focuses on character. That old man who sings the song could be any of us, forty years on, coming to terms with our broken dreams. This reflective view of the past was not common among musical contemporaries, who were then waging a war against old values with a zeal that made humor a forgotten casualty.

There’s no shortage of humor here. Nilsson’s own songwriting was often wry and whimsical, so he was at ease tackling the tongue-in-cheek stereotyping of Yellow Man and the farcical plight of Utah presented on The Beehive State. Newman’s most challenging songs mix levity and pathos, and Nilsson never gives a false note on songs like Love Story and So Long, Dad, and stays true to the characters and the cycle-of-life theme.

Throughout the album, Nilsson is perfectly in sync with Newman’s songwriting voice. Both artists were in debt to a Tin Pan Alley tradition that dates back to the early 20th Century, when songsmiths wore straw hats and spats. They embraced a rich musical past that was still vital and could be mined for gold. Caroline and I’ll Be Home, for instance, could have given Irving Berlin some stiff competition way back when. Dayton, Ohio 1903 is evocative of its time and place, and it invites us to stay there, frozen in time before the agonies of two world wars and the nuclear age.

The album’s vocal arrangements took time to record, with Nilsson multi-tracking his voice to sound like a one-man chorus. His vocal harmonies fit like a glove on Living Without You, a multi-octave masterstroke. He takes a different approach on Cowboy, which starts with just his voice and the sound of the wind. Newman’s piano comes in halfway through the song, buttressing the voice with some sharp chords as it reaches a heartrending cry of despair. 

There are five bonus tracks on the album’s CD version, four of these alternate versions that are as good as the original cuts. The rarest gem here is Snow, which was left out of the album due to lack of space. The song is a potent combination of music and lyrics that goes straight to the heart. Nilsson’s sensitive voice conveys the chill of the air and the darkest despair of a mourned relationship. 

Nilsson Sings Newman was hailed by critics as one of the best albums of 1970, but it failed to find a public. Ahead for Nilsson was the successful soundtrack for The Point, an animated TV film he wrote, and Nilsson Schmilsson, which became his breakout album. Newman also saw a change of fortune with Mama Told Me Not To Come, which Three Dog Night turned into a massive hit. Sales of his albums didn’t pick up until the release of Randy Newman Live in 1971.Since then, he has become a living legend, with a considerable number of Oscar, Grammy, and Emmy wins.

Nilsson squandered his success on self-indulgent sprees, to the extent that he damaged his most precious instrument: his voice. Not good, considering that his sources of income were albums and soundtracks, his bravado hiding the fact that he was terrified of performing live. When his records stopped selling, hard partying almost did him in. The love of a good woman saved his life, for a time. He was getting his act together when the end came. His untimely death in 1994 robbed him of the chance to experience the recognition he deserved.

However, Nilsson is no longer a forgotten artist. His songs constantly pop up on TV and film soundtracks, hooking into the memory banks of the audience. Reissues of his albums have brought forth a reappraisal of his vast catalog. Nilsson Sings Newman ranks among his best works. Like good wine, it has aged well. It just waits to be savored.