CD Review: Harry Nilsson — ‘The RCA Albums Collection’: Everybody should be talkin’

Nilsson box set

It’s pointless to try pigeonholing Harry Nilsson. The singer-songwriter was even more of a composing chameleon than Billy Joel, to the extent that he sometimes seemed indifferent to commercial styles of the moment even though he was a popster at heart. So his wide-ranging work defied convention, and Nilsson — also an incredibly gifted vocalist — was hard to peg down.

Heck, even one of his biggest hits, Everybody’s Talkin’ from the X-rated film Midnight Cowboy, was offbeat in that it was a rare song that the obsessive composer didn’t pen himself (but a cover of a Fred Neil tune).

So ongoing popular success as a solo act wasn’t in the cards for Nilsson, who struggled at the beginning and end of his career and died of poor health in 1994. Yet he left a lasting impression not only for critics and cognoscenti, but for discerning fans who recognize an eclectic gem when they see one. And now that gem has spawned a treasure trove of a vast collection.

How vast is The RCA Albums Collection, due at retail July 30 from RCA/Legacy? It has 17 CDs and 14 original albums with 65 bonus tracks and 26 previously unissued tracks — as well as three newly-amassed CDs with 58 more tracks, half of them previously unissued.

I’ll confess, I haven’t heard the entire box set. But I’ve heard enough to know that, though some of Nilsson is an acquired taste (sorry, but some of his introspective songs make me sleepy), much of his work is also a wondrous foray into pop, novelty (the hit Coconut), blues and just about any musical style you could want from a guy who got his start recording in the mid-’60s while still working at an L.A. bank.

Since there’s too much to assess comprehensively, I’ll stick to personal favorites, including Nilsson’s tuneful and whimsical song score for an innocent animated fable produced for 1970 TV — and narrated by Dustin Hoffman – called The Point. Along with the hit Me and My Arrow were such songs as Think About Your Troubles, a clever ode to perspective that now also sports an exquisite alternate version.

The Point wasn’t Nilsson’s first TV exposure. He also wrote Cuddly Toy for the Monkees, and his song Girlfriend was revised (as Best Friend) to become the theme song of 1969-72 Bill Bixby series The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.

Nilsson again elevated another act’s material (Badfinger’s Without You, an album track) into a huge hit in ’71. But more often it was his own compositions which became hits for others, as with early Three Dog Night smash One, featured here in a pensive alternate take.

Speaking of pensive, Nilsson’s lovely Snow was recorded by Claudine Longet, while the Yardbirds tackled Ten Little Indians and Blood, Sweat & Tears covered Without Her.

In short, though Nilsson’s own adventurousness kept him from sustaining personal record-sales success in a comfy pop groove (despite being championed by the Beatles), he was far more successful as a composer than many might realize. And it’s all sprawled here for those with the time, the cash and the will to explore it. (Or for an economical alternative, try the recently released two-disc, 40-track The Essential Nilsson.)

— BRUCE WESTBROOK

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