Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Harry Nilsson [extended]

  • Harry [RCA Victor, 1969] B+
  • Nilsson Sings Newman [RCA Victor, 1970] B+
  • Nilsson Schmilsson [RCA Victor, 1971] A
  • Son of Schmilsson [RCA Victor, 1972] B+
  • A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night [RCA Victor, 1973] C-
  • Pussy Cats [RCA Victor, 1974] A-
  • Duit on Mon Dei [RCA Victor, 1975] B-
  • Sandman [RCA Victor, 1975] B-
  • Greatest Hits [RCA Victor, 1978] B+
  • Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology [RCA, 1995] A

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Nilsson: Harry [RCA Victor, 1969]
Nilsson is an acquired taste which I have just acquired. In integrity of conception and skill of execution, this is an A album, but I can't completely forgive the whimsy at the heart of it. B+

Nilsson: Nilsson Sings Newman [RCA Victor, 1970]
For those benighted who still believe the original can't sing, here's a sweeter version, including appropriately lovely versions of two rare urban celebrations--"Vine Street" (the one that led off Van Dyke Parks's Song Cycle) and "Dayton, Ohio 1903." Not so dynamic musically, though--just Nilsson singing, and Newman behind on piano. B+

Nilsson Schmilsson [RCA Victor, 1971]
In which the whimsy and vocal pyrotechnics of Aerial Ballet and Pandemonium Shadow Show (now cunningly collapsed into a disc called Aerial Pandemonium Ballet) are apotheosized under the direction of popmeister Richard Perry. The bathrobed recluse who shows his unshaven face on the cover (his well-stocked fridge is on the back) veers from kitsch fantasy both romantic ("Without You") and comic ("Coconut") to terrified evocations of everyday existence (the cockeyed antemeridian triptych--"Gotta Get Up," "Driving Along," and "Early in the Morning"--that kicks off side one). The two-and-a-half years since his last real LP, Harry, have been worth it--if only every artist could learn to mark time until a good one was ready. A

Son of Schmilsson [RCA Victor, 1972]
Nilsson functions on the edge of parody--his best stuff succeeds simultaneously as a kind of takeoff and as a genuinely moving example of the genre that has inspired him. Unfortunately, most of this album, which follows so close on the heels of his biggest commercial success that Nilsson (natch) makes a joke of it in the title, is too often merely funny or strange. This is wonderful as far as it goes. But those three or four songs that are much better than that suffer by association. Inspirational Verse: "You're breakin'; my heart/You're tearin' it apart/So fuck you." B+

Nilsson: A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night [RCA Victor, 1973]
The "Schm" is for schmaltz, to which this is a tribute--the selections, none of which were written after 1958, include "For Me and My Gal" and "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now." Theoretically, this is a charming idea--who among us is better equipped to bring such music back to life? Actually, it's soporific--devoid of humor or irony but without any rediscovery of the whole-hearted emotion on which the old songs are predicated. Nilsson doesn't sing with much power and Gordon Jenkins's charts don't even qualify as period pieces. I know, I'm just a dumb rock and roll fan, so go waste your money. I wouldn't give my extra copy to my mother. C-

Nilsson: Pussy Cats [RCA Victor, 1974]
Only the Umpteenth Beatle could juxtapose "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Loop de Loop" without giving off the sweet stink of a Bryan Ferry parody. With producer John Lennon keeping him honest, Harry goes raw, playing even the ballads for ugliness. But at the same time, no joke, he plays it all for laughs. A-

Nilsson: Duit on Mon Dei [RCA Victor, 1975]
I have a weakness for sardonic nonsense, but this man is definitely running out of ideas--even his haphazardness is getting predictable. Crazy like a fox I can sit still for, but not crazy like an audio salesman. B-

Nilsson: Sandman [RCA Victor, 1975]
Subtler than Dr. Hook, more soulful than 10cc, and sexier than Henny Youngman. Includes a new interpretation of "Jesus Christ You're Tall" and a new theme song: "Here's Why I Did Not Go to Work Today." B-

Nilsson: Greatest Hits [RCA Victor, 1978]
Those who are taken with Nilsson the sweet, slightly kooky popmeister will approve of this reliable compilation--probably even dig Gordon Jenkins on "As Time Goes By." Those who are attracted to the popmeister by his apparent insanity will play it only in their most conservative moments. B+

Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology [RCA, 1995]
Nilsson didn't just share an aesthetic with the Apple-era Beatles who loved him so much--he embodied that aesthetic. Utterly studio-bound, conceiving rock as a facet of pop, proud to be fey yet also proud to pound out the unprecedented lines "You're breakin' my heart/You're tearin' it apart/So fuck you," he was as fluent as songwriting got in the '60s, turning out White Album outtakes like "Salmon Falls" and "All I Think About Is You" well after his doppelganger Paul had died of whimsy and his soulmate John had discovered his roots. This double-CD is mercifully short on such marginalia; the soundtrack one-offs and previously unreleaseds that make the cut are top-drawer. Except for the three Gordon Jenkins schmaltzfests, the covers are gorgeous. And from the autobiographical "1941" to the superschlock "Without Her" to such trademark eccentricities-not-novelties as "Coconut" and "Joy" and "The Most Beautiful World in the World," the high points are ephemeral and transcendent. A