Harry Nilsson, Nilsson Schmilsson (1971)

Harry Nilsson, 'Nilsson Schmilsson' (1971)For some he’s the “wha-wha” guy from Midnight Cowboy (to which he contributed “Everybody’s Talkin’”). For others the name Harry Nilsson evokes “Me and My Arrow” and that funny cartoon about a land of pointy-headed people. Still others recall how the Beatles once dubbed him their favorite American performer.

For me Harry Nilsson’s legacy continues largely in replays of a half-dozen albums from the late ’60s and early ’70s, particularly the eclectic Nilsson Schmilsson.

A perfectly-constructed breakfast bowl of pure pop, “Gotta Get Up” kicks it off. The song has a carnivalesque feel, marked by a driving piano and well-placed accordion, with Nilsson’s vocal during the chorus uncannily squeezing in between beats. A forward-looking beginning to the day/album.

The equally upbeat “Driving Along” follows, though its message is less bright, describing as it does people separating from one another rather than getting together. A stripped down, inspired version of Louis Jordan’s “Early in the Morning” comes next -- nothing but Nilsson’s vocal vamping plus a sparse organ echoing through a large, empty space, the sound kind of mirroring the speaker’s melancholy. (Also fits well with that cover photo.)

Then comes “The Moonbeam Song,” one of three genuine tearjerkers on the LP. Nilsson probably never sounded sweeter, even when describing the “bits of crap” along the bottom of a fence. Mesmerizing stuff. The first side concludes with “Down,” bookending the opener in which we got “up.” Like that first track, this one reminds us of the Beatles, too, especially “I’m Down” which similarly belies the speaker’s apparently depressed state with a rousing, rockin’ rhythm.

Side Two begins with the number-one smash and AM radio staple “Without You.” Originally a Badfinger throwaway, Nilsson turns it into a full-blown romantic epic, unembarrassingly melodramatic and cinematic in scope. Next is “Coconut,” and the juxtaposition couldn’t be more jarring. A faux-Carib novelty tune, Nilsson’s increasingly energetic reiteration of the nonsensical verses and chorus is impossible to listen to without smiling -- the perfect cure for the previous track’s despair.

“Let the Good Times Roll” is the last of the record’s three covers, another old R&B classic that is well-handled, though amid such brilliance seems relatively less notable. The raucous “Jump Into the Fire” follows, the LP’s loudest, most manic jam. At seven-plus minutes, the song always suggests (for me) Mo Tucker’s hard-pounding percussion from the old Velvet Underground, or even “Hallogallo” by Neu!

The meditative, achingly beautiful “I’ll Never Leave You” closes the record. One of those “it always gets me” kind of songs, the lyrics effectively address the transience of life and the importance of making real, meaningful connections during the short time we have. The track also invites the listener to look back over the album as a whole -- and indeed, most of Nilsson’s oeuvre -- and consider how those twin themes of loneliness and love tend to underpin his every expression.

Can’t recommend Nilsson Schmilsson enough. Kind of funny to think Nilsson would give his best album such a self-effacing name.

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