This is Harry Nilsson. Singer, songwriter, exponent of the type of career trajectory we’ve almost grown accustomed to be expecting from rock stars (that’s ‘rock star’ as in relaxed definition, naturally – Nilsson’s MOR sentimentality doesn’t rank too highly on the GG Allin scale of musical abrasiveness, even if his behaviour very occasionally might have).
A précis of his career: years of struggle slowly infiltrating the LA music scene, followed by an ascent to fame that would have appeared dramatic and rapid to casual listeners, but was in fact indicative of hard work, judgement and a dose of good fortune.
And that’ll be when the demons made their appearance. The hell-raiser years, during which Nilsson partied himself to bloat and blown vocal chords, a reaction to the demands of fame that could be understood as a form of deliberate self-sabotage. Which is pretty much the end of the story; the hedonism was eventually tamed, but he was finished as a serious artist, and eventually faded from prominence like helium gas from a balloon. He died in 1994 aged just 52.
I certainly couldn’t be considered a Nilsson fan; the late ’60’s and early ’70’s took an extremely schmaltzy position when it came to mainstream, adult-orientated musak, and if I never hear his version of ‘Without You’, or the equally ubiquitous ‘Everybody’s Talking’ ever again, I won’t be issuing missives of complaint.
But as with all complex, prolific artists, it would be a mistake to blithely dismiss out of hand, particularly in terms of the strength of songwriting. This is especially evident in the scope of artists and styles that have recorded Harry Nilsson compositions over the years, from The Monkees and Three Dog Night to Tripping Daisy and Macy Gray. The original version of ‘One’ appears on 1968 album Aerial Ballet; it’s a song that drifts towards the over-sentimental, with a vocal track that hints at self-pity. Aimee Mann’s rendition (here), which took a starring role in that Magnolia film that’s often on TV late at night, drags the song up by its breeches, layers of texture and momentum hiding from Nilsson’s version. Yet when this texture and energy are revealed, courtesy of a different, sassier approach, it’s the wry artistry behind the songwriting that sears itself across the memory.
And my favourite cover? Has the be the track below the words, Mr Effortlessly Hip James Murphy camping it up it ways only James Murphy can (and yes, eagle-eyed readers may be spotting a DFA theme approaching round these parts…)
LCD Soundsystem / Jump Into The Fire