True, Harry Nilsson’s Son of Schmilsson was released in the summer of 1972. But with the cover, on which Nilsson appears as Dracula, and the B-horror movie sound effects between the first and second tracks, it seems an appropriate topic for Halloween week — even though I value the album as a tremendous deconstruction of and homage to love songs.
Son of Schmilsson came on the heels of Nilsson Schmilsson, a 1971 release that produced three hit singles, including the chart topping “Without You.” The title would suggest Son of Schmilsson is more of the same. You couldn’t be more wrong. Instead, Nilsson uses an opportunity created by commercial success to indulge himself and have fun.
The songs on the LP include the serious and the seriously loony. The album is replete with top-notch musical talent and songs ranging from rock to ballads to country twang. While the song “Spaceman” hit the Top 40 charts, the album’s bawdy nature attracted even more attention. Thus, you have Nilsson leading a choir of senior citizens on “I’d Rather Be Dead,” with a chorus built around “I’d rather be dead/Than wet my bed.”
Nilsson’s willingness to push boundaries turns the album into a splendid exploration of love songs. In the opening cut, “Take 54,” a recording artist bemoans the fact that “I sang my balls off for you baby” but still woke up alone. That is immediately followed by “Remember (Christmas),” a tender piano ballad. (Of course, the somewhat schizo approach to the album is seen on side two when Nilsson interrupts the beginning of “Remember” with a belch to lead in to “At My Front Door,” the only song on the LP he didn’t write and perhaps the most rocking one). “The Lottery Song” is also beautiful as Nilsson sings of a man who dreams of finding happiness with his girl in Vegas. The album closes with “The Most Beautiful World in the World,” a love song to planet Earth (“I love the way you wear your trees”) with plenty of orchestration — and some gargling.
Parody is at the heart of two tracks on the first side of the album that truly take us inside love songs. “You’re Breakin’ My Heart,” which closes that side, takes little more than three minutes to distill the essence of many love songs. It opens with “You’re breakin’ my heart/You’re tearin’ it apart/So fuck you.” The lyrics perhaps caused severe heart palpitations in the offices of record company execs. But if you’ve never experienced that exact feeling, you’ve lived a far too sheltered a life. The song recognizes reality in another way. By the end, that refrain becomes a plaintive “You’re breakin’ my heart/You’re tearin’ it apart/But I love you.” With 15 words, Nilsson sums up the emotions of a failing relationship.
“Joy” is country-based, complete with pedal steel guitar, and provides wonderful insight. Nilsson engages in wordplay with the narrator’s relationship with a girl named Joy, including a chorus that includes “Joy to the world/Was a beautiful girl/But to me Joy meant only sorrow.” But here is the song’s unassailable logic:
Now–if you haven’t got an answer
Then you haven’t got a question
And if you never had a question
Then you’d never have a problem
But if you never had a problem
Well, everyone would be happy
But if everyone was happy
There’d never be a love song
The most heart-wrenching love songs address the emotional impact of failed relationships. “Joy” astutely points out that we would never hear those songs if love left everybody happy.
Whether in spite or because of its humor and bawdiness, Son of Schmilsson actually went gold and reached number 12 on the charts, feats Nilsson would never again accomplish. The lack of future commercial success was due in part to drugs and drinking (he was John Lennon’s compatriot during Lennon’s 18-month “lost weekend”), as well as vocal chord and health issues. I’m just glad he wrote and sang his balls off on this album.
Tell her she’s beautiful
Roll the world over
And give her a kiss
And a feel
Harry Nilsson, “The Most Beautiful World in the World,” Son of Schmilsson