Nilsson's Ill-Received Sequel Sounds Great On Its Fiftieth Anniversary
His sequel emerged exactly fifty years ago, and fans were expecting more seductive cuts like those on Nilsson Schmilsson. Having previously mesmerized audiences with “Coconut” and “Jump Into the Fire” as well as the Grammy-winning “Without You,” we were not surprised that the artist appeared in vampire costume on Son of Schmilsson.
Most critics, who had been enamored with Nilsson from the time they first heard his hit cover of Fred Neal's “Everybody's Talking” from the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, immediately began driving stakes through this sequel. The public, too, after hearing the batch of songs, felt as if the pop star had chosen fangs over fans.
It sounded as if Nilsson had indeed transformed into that vampire on the album cover who, after hypnotizing us a la Bela Lugosi with those catchy tunes from the prior release, had now swooped in for the bite on the neck. Remarkably, Nilsson seemed to take delight in the disappointment inflicted on not only the critics, but the fans as well.
Revisiting Son of Schmilsson now fifty years later, having learned much of Nilsson's quirky personality and his loathing of any popularity, it is easier to understand and better appreciate why he made this record. Nilsson had been turned off by the celebrity wrought from the previous disc, so he made sure to not repeat its success.
“I wanted to be a spaceman, I wanted to be one so bad,” he sings in the album's only Top Forty single, which is a metaphor for pop star. “But now that I am a spaceman, I'd rather be back in the pad. Hey Mother Earth, won't you bring me back down?”
Musically “Spaceman” and the rest of the album would have probably prevented his goal, of coming down from stardom, for most of the songs have catchy melodies with infectious choruses. Producer Richard Perry even brought in legendary musicians to back it, names like Ringo Starr, Peter Frampton, Lowell George, Nicky Hopkins and Klaus Voorman.
It is the lyrics or some additional touch that kept the record from receiving airplay and critical approval. Take for instance the track “You're Breaking My Heart,” an accessible tune about a jilted lover. In order to insure that it not become a radio hit, Nilsson inserted the F word in the chorus.
“Joy” alludes to his disdain for having acquired fame, a country-tinged ballad rife with satire. He bemoans meeting a much sought-after girl named Joy, admitting that to him she had meant only sorrow.
Lest you doubt his intent to avoid further success, listen to the next track. “Turn on your radio, Babe, listen to my song,” and “Turn on your love light, Baby, I'm gone.”
It is almost as if Nilsson, soured on the success of Schmilsson, would rather do anything than have another hit record. In “The Lottery Song” he strongly suggests leaving the entertainment business for a much more anonymous career.
“I could be a plumber. . ., we could win the lottery. . ., we could buy a trailer,” are all ideas posed in the catchy acoustic number, each ending with the phrase “and be very happy.”
He enlists as a backing choir a group of residents from a senior living facility for the song “I'd Rather Be Dead,” which Nilsson seems to be a better alternative than repeating chart success.
“I'd rather be gone, than carry on,” he sings with the choir of seniors. “I'd rather go away than feel this way.”
Perhaps the most direct evidence of Nilsson's having abandoned any desire for musical success is found in “Ambush,” an aggressive title for a musically delightful track.
“We ain't gonna sing that song no more, we ain't gonna sing that song no more,” he chants. “Especially when you're in a war.”
Initially most of us were saddened by this announcement to not make more hits like “Without You” or “Jump Into the Fire” or others from Nilsson Schmilsson. After the five decades of its release, and three decades since Harry's passing, we realize that what he gave us instead in Son of Schmilsson has been much more enduring.