Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Harry Nilsson

  • Nilsson Schmilsson [RCA Victor, 1971] A
  • Son of Schmilsson [RCA Victor, 1972] B+
  • Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology [RCA, 1995] A

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

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+

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