Great Albums of the 20th Century: Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)

Harry Nilsson -Nilsson Schmilsson - obt28Rxvii

When the Showtime series Billions premiered its second season opener earlier this year, the first music heard (on a show that prides itself on its insider trendiness) was Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” a 46-year-old track from his seventh and most commercially successful album, Nilsson Schmilsson. I imagine most viewers had no idea how old this music was or that the man who’d written and performed it had been dead nearly a quarter-century. But I knew this piece from its opening heartbeat and bass riff, and I realized how much I wanted to hear the album again.

A few weeks later, facing a seven-hour drive south to my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia, I brought along some CDs, including this one. Since I was traveling solo, I could crank it up as loud as it deserved. How quickly the miles slipped by!

The progression of ten songs (seven of which Nilsson wrote) presents the events and moods of a day chronologically, starting with the ebullient Gotta Get Up, a wakeup call I’ve always wanted to wire into my alarm clock. Just piano at first, banging its insistence into a groggy subconscious, then backed by bass and a vocal that provides context. The singer’s waking up somewhere other than home, telling himself to get up and get back before the morning comes…before the sun comes up. The demands of the day urging him on, he offers a quick goodbye: Got a big day, sorry, can’t stay—I gotta run, run, yeah, gotta get home, pick up the phone, gotta let the people know I’m gonna be late. By now horns and an accordion have joined in, and when we hit the bridge, things take a wistful turn and the lyrics speak of how much harder it is now to stay out late than it used to be (we never thought we’d get older, we never thought we’d grow cold). When the bridge comes around again, it tells the story of a sailor and a seaside girl that’s sweet in its nostalgia but succinct in its details, as much in a hurry as everything else in this song.

The first track fades out under the start of the second track, Driving Along, guitar, bass, and drums setting an agreeable pace as a car door shuts and an engine is turned over a few times. His car seems as worn out as he is…eventually starting, sending him off into the traffic with everyone else. He muses about the lives of the people in the other cars, how isolated they are and how stressed (faces so tired of facing each other), but at the bridge, his mood shifts and he’s tripping now (driving along at fifty-seven thousand miles an hour, look at those people standing on the petals of a flower) and before you know it, he’s doing Beatlesque harmonies and an arrangement straight out of Sgt. Pepper. This is, my friends, how all commutes should go.

As before, the next song overlaps slightly, a lightly-played organ rising up from the fade-out. The lyrics of this third track, Early One Morning, delve a little deeper into what went wrong the night before, how desperately he’d like to fix things, and how haggard he’s looking (Harry, you sure look beat, says the waitress serving him breakfast). In contrast to him singing, over and over, I ain’t got nothin’ but the blues, the organ chords are in a major key and relentlessly persist to the end. These contradictions work, providing a kind of threadbare hope.

Track Four, The Moonbeam Song, is the sweetest tribute to rubble and ruin you’ll ever hear, and once again the mood is captured perfectly in the lyrics Nilsson croons and its languid, mesmerizing arrangement. The haunting mellotron that ends the piece hearkens back once again to the psychedelic euphoria of Sgt. Pepper, released only four years before, which seems both present and past.

Introspection done, the album moves into resolve. A boogie piano starts Down (Track Five), punched up by drums from Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon (Derek and the Dominos) and Nilsson’s wailing instructions:

Well, you gotta have soul to wash your sins away,
& you gotta have hope—it’s the price you gotta pay,
& you gotta give love, or your love will walk away,
& you gotta stay loose—it’s the only way to stay.
Down, you got me goin’
Goin’ round, you got me goin’
Down, d-d-down, d-d-down.

By now, the horns, Klaus Voorman’s bass, and reverb on the vocal have kicked in, and the song revels in its swagger, its assurance, and also a kind of whimsy woven into the mix. By the end of the track, something in the lively mix almost suggests a crowd has gathered, an audience of all those people from the morning commute now gathered in one place, trying to do the best they can.

Opening Side 2 of the vinyl record is the biggest of the album’s three hit singles: Without You, which reached #1 on two Billboard charts: Pop Single & Adult Contemporary. Penned by a couple of members from the British group Badfinger, the song begins with solo piano (played by Gary Wright, four years before he released Dream Weaver) and a heartbreaking vocal that Richard Perry, the album’s producer, claims was done in a single take. Nilsson, a tenor with a three-and-a-half-octave range, performs perfectly here, every note richly nuanced with pain, regret, and longing. The song won the 1973 Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal, an award it richly deserves.

What do you do when you’ve lost the love of your life? The next two songs offer options. Here’s the prescription provided by Coconut, a playful calypso number:

Brother bought a coconut, he bought it for a dime;
His sister had another one, she paid it for de lime.
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank ’em bot’ up.
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank ’em bot’ up.
She put de lime in de coconut, she drank ’em bot’ up.
She put the lime in de coconut, she called the doctor,
woke him up & said, “Doctor, ain’t there nothin’ I can take,
I said, Doctor, to relieve this bellyache?”

At Perry’s suggestion, Nilsson sings all four characters in this tale: the narrator, the brother, the sister, and the doctor, and his vocal dexterity is remarkable, but what really wows the writer in me are Nilsson’s lyrics—how spare they are and yet how complete (Nilsson was #62 on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time,” a list released in 2015). “Coconut” went to #8 on the Billboard Pop Single chart in 1972. Once you’ve heard it, you never forget it.

The other option? Let the Good Times Roll, recorded by Shirley and Lee in 1956 (they also wrote it). In Nilsson’s version, the carefree abandon in his vocal, especially as the song goes on, is a perfect antidote to all the heartache in the earlier tracks. His nonchalant harmonica solo underscores that attitude, and the multi-track vocals that end it are a fitting sendoff.

But the party is interrupted by that percussive heartbeat triggering the all-out rock of Jump Into the Fire, another Nilsson original and the album’s third hit single in as many styles. No matter what feats you accomplish, he sings, you’ll never be free. Great band on this one, including a hypnotic Jim Gordon drum solo that recalls Ringo Starr on The Beatles’ The End or Ron Bushy on Iron Butterfly’s In-a-Gadda-da-Vida, my holy trinity of classic rock drum solos, actually. Herbie Flowers’ bass joins in and works an inspired solo of his own, and then the guitars return: John Uribe (lead), Chris Spedding and Klaus Voorman (rhythm). On piano, Nilsson handles electric, Jim Webb acoustic. Nearly seven minutes of pure energy, this one.

The day is done at last with Track Ten: I’ll Never Leave You. Some nights, I go to sleep without you, he sings over a solo piano and the slightest touch of a triangle (by which I mean the percussion instrument, but a romantic triangle would also work here, a subtlety in arrangement not beyond Nilsson’s powers). It’s a plaintive cri de coeur from a moment of longing in the dark night, and as the song nears its three-minute mark, the singer’s voice is multiplied and echoed as he repeats I’ll never leave you alone, almost as if he means to haunt her soul. It’s been a long day, and, in the end, she is all that matters.

In this occasional series, I celebrate some of the previous century’s greatest albums, presented in no particular order and whenever I get around to it. The only requirement: every track has to be great. This is a personal list, ultimately, but one I hope proves persuasive at times or at least piques your curiosity about an album you may have overlooked.

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