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50 years on from Harry Nilsson’s songwriting irreverence with ‘Son of Schmilsson’

Harry Nilsson is a curious old figure in the canon of great American songwriters. There are many other cohorts in that canon who you can call masterminds who curiously never quite enamoured the masses or got the attention that they deserved. However, you can’t say that about Nilsson, with him everything is perfectly understandable. 

The first verse on Son of Schmilsson includes the lyric, “I sang my balls off for you baby”, and albeit Nilsson is a virtuoso singing talent – one of the greatest male singers America has produced, in fact, with his highwire wavering through 3.5-octave tenor range – his delivery on this opening track is ironically very slapdash. As it happens, the whole song is a little bit infuriating. It’s fun but it’s too frenzied, full of wayward flourishes, and restraint is a foreign word. 

In short, this is not how you open an album that immediately follows a career-high with Nilsson Schmilsson. And then immediately after that mania, he takes on the piano ditty ‘Remember (Christmas)’, a song reminiscent of his truly terrific Nilsson sings Newman record. A little further down the line, you have the almost-unbearably beauteous lullaby ‘Turn on Your Radio’. Then, you are whacked with the fantastic freak out of ‘You’re Breakin’ My Heart’ that sadly seems so incongruous with the preceding serenade that you wonder whether you’ve got a faulty copy. 

And this is where my pet theory comes in: Nilsson almost never sang live. Thus, he never had to back these tracks up in front of an audience or structure a coherent setlist. Thus, for him, it was all studio exploration, and at this stage, after a golden run, he’d just about conquered the art of songwriting. All that was left to do was have a laugh with it. That is all well and good, the sense of humour in Nilsson’s work is what makes it soar. 

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However, there are moments in later years when he gives himself a bit too much rope with it. Son of Schmilsson forecasts that—between the patches of beauty, volleys of joyous irreverence, and rock ‘n’ roll riffing, there are flashes when the sincerity slips and the lethargic feeling of being bound to a studio for hours bleeds into the record. As brilliant as it is on the whole, moments of frustration define the crux and Achillies’ heel of his career. 

It says a lot about the album that it was filmed extensively for a documentary Nilsson was planning called Did Somebody Drop His Mouse? but it never ended up getting finished. You’ll let him off because you love him, and some of the creative mishaps you’ll put down to the same charm that makes him a beautifully weird numen illuminating our dismal daily lives with a boon of ebullience, but boy oh boy is some of it just a sensible moment away from being even better. 

Like the smartest kid in school who took a back seat to entertain his classmates and ends up sat in a bar ruing things decades later as everything else moves on and the laughter track can’t quash the regret, there are magical moments aplenty, but in the dustier years of his back catalogue, you sit there and wonder what could’ve been. Son of Schmilsson is, by turns, brilliant, beautiful, and bombastically irreverent, but when placed under the microscope, the exuberant charm exhibited just isn’t quite enough to mask the fractures of artistic ennui deep set in the wrinkles of time.

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