Harry Nilsson was possibly popular music’s most casually great songwriter — he had a way of making great songs seem easy to write, as though he was barely putting forth any effort to do so. But even though his classic 1971 album, Nilson Schmilsson, may at first glance seem to be an assortment of mostly uncomplicated catchy ditties (save for his heaviest rocker, “Jump into the Fire,” which you may remember from its excellent use by Martin Scorcese in Goodfellas), you’ll find that every song is actually constructed from a variety of musical twists and turns that would not have occurred to a more typical songwriter. And Nilsson was nothing if not unconventional — every step of his career was unpredictable, for better or worse. And ironically enough, his two biggest hits were covers of other people’s songs: “Everybody’s Talkin’,” featured in the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack and originally written by folk-rocker Fred Neil, and “Without You,” a song written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger. But it wasn’t for a lack of even better original songs.
Nilsson Schmilsson is a tour de force, as they say…with one great composition after another (and a couple of covers, including the aforementioned “Without You”). The album is loaded with great musicians in a variety of configurations, always led by Harry and his great voice — he was one of the more versatile singers of his time, which seems to be overlooked a lot, taking a backseat to acknowledgment of his great songwriting. And to top the whole package off, there’s the awesomely un-rock ‘n’ roll cover photo, taken by Dean Torrence (of the surf-music duo, Jan and Dean), with Harry looking slovenly in his bathrobe (and holding what turns out to have been a hash pipe, although the record company didn’t catch that until it was too late). On the other hand, maybe it’s one of the most rock ‘n’ roll cover photos ever — Harry’s way of giving the finger to record company expectations.
“Driving Along” is one of my favorite songs on the album, in which Nilsson uses the automobile culture as a metaphor for (and possible cause of) people growing more distant from each other, on both a cultural and personal level, and slowly destroying our “vehicle,” Earth, in the process.
Each day they grow farther and farther away from each other.
Driving along at fifty seven thousand miles an hour.
Look at those people standing on the petals of a flower.
Look at those petals pumping for a little bit of power.
As is common for Nilsson’s songs, the deeper message is couched in a catchy, upbeat melody and rhythm — in fact, “Driving Along” is somewhat ironically a great driving song. But knowing Nilsson and his somewhat warped sense of humor, I have a feeling that was exactly his intent.