The facts of Harry Nilsson are easy enough: One of the best singers of the ’60s and ’70s, and one of the best songwriters to boot. Was a favorite and friend of all of the Beatles, who said in an interview that he was their favorite American band. “One.” Nilsson Schmilsson. “Coconut.” A basically flawless catalog.
But explaining as a Nilsson obsessive what makes him more than all of that is where it gets tough. Left by his father as a tot, the loneliness of being dad-less was Nilsson’s permanent scar; it’s at least at the edge of basically all of his songs. He wrote about being lonely better than most songwriters write about anything, capturing how no substance or thing can replace that hole in your chest. He wrestled with God, we wrestled with what the limits of love are, he sang like it was the only thing that kept him sane. He made Son Of Schmilsson, an angry, bitter divorce album with its best song having “fuck” in the chorus — meaning its commercial prospects as a single were literally zero — because he didn’t want to go commercial after his biggest album. He made the first standards album by a rock singer, and his producer got so mad he quit, but also the album is incredible. He never performed live because of a bad experience once, and who can’t relate to that? But that also means that the albums are it, they are the limits of the Harry Nilsson experience; there’s no YouTube videos and no live blu-rays. Everything you need to know is in the songs. And the songs! There’s stuff in the bowels of The Point that can tear you limb from limb. I mean, shit, the songs from the Popeye soundtrack can stop you dead in your tracks. He was also funny. So damn funny. But there’s also a feeling you get from the best Nilsson songs you don’t get from anyone else: the feeling like there’s someone else out there, living inside their head, worried they’re doing it all wrong, and singing it better than you can even think it.
Which is to say: After more than 25 years of essentially living in an unfinished limbo after Nilsson died at age 52 from a heart attack in 1994, and 40 years after his last album, 1980’s Flash Harry, there is a new Harry Nilsson album out. It’s called Losst And Founnd and it has all of the things that made Nilsson so beloved: It’s a record filled with wit, great songwriting, and delicate songs about delicate things sung by a delicate man. Nothing can touch the heights Nilsson reached in the ’70s, and even Harry knew that. But Losst and Founnd is a worthy sendoff for the man they called Schmilsson.
Boasting nine new Nilsson originals, and two covers, the first thing you’ll notice on Losst and Founnd is Nilsson’s voice. He famously blew out his vocal cords recording Pussy Cats with John Lennon, and it never had the same range it had before after. But it remained rich even after Nilsson’s pseudo-retirement from recording; “Woman Oh Woman” and “Love Is The Answer” both feature that classic Nilsson croon, while “U.C.L.A.” and “Listen The Snow Is Falling” both feature Nilsson working his instrument as it was then to its varied potential.
There’s a podcast out — Final Sessions — that tells the story of Losst And Founnd, and the biggest insight into the album’s production is that though Nilsson stopped recording in 1980 to raise his kids, he never really stopped writing songs. He apparently had a whole trove of tapes, and when he found out in the early ’90s that his money manager had absconded with a lot of his money, he went back to the studio with producer Mark Hudson, and started assembling from those scraps. Hudson returned to the project with help from Van Dyke Parks and Nilsson’s son Kiefo, who was 8 when his dad died. The highlight of Losst And Founnd is in the originals, the songs like “U.C.L.A.,” the title track, and “Lullabye,” where you get Nilsson meditating on realizing your better days are gone, but still soldiering on, the macro and micro of existence, and fatherhood, respectively.
Harry Nilsson never really got to go out on his own terms; he did quit recording in 1980, but he was gearing up to record again, and maybe even tour, as is revealed in the podcast. So Losst And Founnd, even if it’s 25 years late, is maybe that final sendoff Nilsson deserves. If this is your excuse to finally dive deep into his catalog, welcome.