For the purpose of full disclosure, before digging in for this review I knew very little about Harry Nilsson. (Embarrassing, I know) I only that he was a respected musical figure and one I felt I needed to investigate further. I knew the hits, such as “Everybody’s Talkin’” from the movie Midnight Cowboy and the extremely beautiful “Without You.” I also recall his annoying 70s hit “Coconut.” Completing my limited education, I was – I think – half aware he wrote Three Dog Night’s “One,” and heard somewhere he partied a lot with John Lennon back in the day during the time Lennon was separated from Yoko Ono.
To better educate myself, I watched the 2006 documentary, Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Hm)? and fell in love with Nilsson’s music. If you have Netflix, you owe it to yourself to check out this documentary. It’s almost guaranteed you’ll become smitten by Nilsson, just as I was. The filmmakers talk to his colleagues who describe his unique musical genius. Not only did he have a heavenly singing voice, but he wrote amazingly quirky lyrics. A prime example of Nilsson’s lyrical IQ can be found in “Think about Your Troubles,” sung lazily and lovingly by Willie Mason here:
You can take your teardrops
And drop them in a teacup
Take them down to the riverside
And throw them over the side
To be swept up by a current
And taken to the ocean
To be eaten by some fishes
Who were eaten by some fishes
And swallowed by a whale
Who grew so old
In other words: yes, your problems are big and seemingly untenable. But ultimately, they fade away, just like water, so don’t let them linger in your headspace. Or something like that.
The Nilsson documentary explains how the historical tune “1941” is actually autobiographical, as it tells of how Harry’s father left the family when he was very young. Tragically, history somewhat repeated itself as Harry’s partying ways basically left one of his sons, Zak, relatively fatherless, something also explained in the film. (Have I sold the documentary enough?) Jenny O does a lovely version of “1941,” but it’s not quite so pretty when you fully understand the real life story behind it.
This tribute album adheres fairly closely to Nilsson’s originals. One striking exception is Church Of Betty’s “Without You,” which smartly avoids trying to match Harry’s perfect vocal performance and instead transforms it into a something that sounds a whole lot like George Harrison’s Indian music experimentation with the Beatles, complete with sitar and bongo-y percussion.
The fact that the artists on this tribute album are not of Nilsson’s Baby Boom generation is heartening. It’s not just a bunch of old farts paying their respects to a fallen musical hero, but a collection of younger musicians that ‘get’ Nilsson, instead. Hopefully, these fresh renditions will drive many of the uninitiated back to the original source.