This letter concerns your 1970 LP, Nilsson Sings Newman.
First of all, I would like to inform you that this LP played a large part in breaking up my former band, Ezra Furman & the Harpoons. Don’t worry, I’m not going to sue you. I’m actually writing to thank you.
I was the titular front man of Ezra Furman & the Harpoons from 2006 through 2011. We were a great band and I had a great time. However, we were very unsuccessful (which was, to be honest, probably a larger factor in our break-up than your record was), and this caused some unpleasantness. We were on tour all the time and were very poor because we didn’t have jobs and being on tour barely paid. A common story, one we’ve all heard. I loved playing rock and roll with my band. As you put it in NSN‘s opening song, “Vine Street”: “That was me / Third guitar / I wonder where the others are.”
But after about five years as a loud rock and roll band, one starts to wonder about a softer kind of music. Amid the crashing cymbals and rowdy crowds, I ached for gentleness, and found it on Nilsson Sings Newman. Before our third album came out, we took a long chunk of time off touring, and that’s when I heard it. I was so ready for it. I must have listened to it a thousand times over the course of a couple years.
Harry: I know some people scratch their heads trying to fathom why, at a relative peak of your own career as a brilliant singer/songwriter, you decided to make an album of Randy Newman covers. To me, it’s very clear. Randy Newman has got to be one of the best and most original songwriters of the twentieth century. Which is saying a lot. I love your commitment to him, and your devil-may-care about what was “right for this moment in your career” in the face of the realization that you could make something idiosyncratically great.
Randy: In 1970, you must have seemed criminally underappreciated to people who loved your work. You’d written tens, maybe hundreds of great songs for others to sing, but had only made one record of your own. That record was so weird that it could never have been a hit, but it was so good that it should have been one anyway.
Anyway, R., you’d be the first to admit that you’re not what anyone would call a dazzling singer. In the midst of my love for the records under your own name, I occasionally wish I could hear someone belt our your words and melodies rather than charmingly mumble them the way you do. And Harry’s one of the better singers that’s ever been recorded, so to pair these two people together was an exciting idea.
The record turned out way more satisfying than even I would have thought, being a massive fan of both of you. Harry, your voice is like honey, and never better than on this album. It’s seriously medicine. Just to hear you go “whoa-la-la-la” in harmony on the first track can turn my whole day around. You are a genius interpreter of others’ songs, and the rare singer who’s not just a virtuoso technically, but emotionally as well.
When the singing/writing combination really fires on all cylinders, there’s just nothing like it. It’s so emotionally and musically powerful, but without any of the bad writing that so often goes with the saddest music. “Living Without You,” for example, makes me feel the pure beauty of depression, a self-aggrandizing blind withdrawal from the cruel world, in a way that very few songs are capable of. “Everyone’s got something / They are trying to get some more / They’ve got something to get up for / But I ain’t about to. / Nothing’s gonna happen / Nothing’s gonna change / It’s so hard living without you.”
It’s a little bit awkward to gush about this album, because part of what makes it so good is its insistence on understatement. For one thing, it’s only just over twenty-five minutes long. The songwriting is wonderfully concise. Understatement is one of the key tricks to Randy’s effectiveness. He couches his satire in so much casualness and everyday talk that when you get it, it’s like a sneak attack. And it makes you feel clever, too, because you know that someone not listening as close would have missed it. “Love Story” tries to disguise itself as something utterly average, but if you pay attention you are smacked in the face with absurdity, tragedy, dramatic irony—all the good stuff of depressing art. “We’ll play checkers all day / ’til we pass away,” it ends. A meaningless and banal slow death disguised as a happy ending.
I know I’m describing all the sadness of the album, but it’s clear after the first five minutes what a joyful thing it is. The pleasure factor is so strong here that I can hardly have a serious conversation when one of these songs is running through my head.
Part of why this record derailed my band is because it is so clearly an insular creation. You guys made this album alone in a studio, and put in all these self-conscious references to the fact that it is a studio creation, not played live. You end the record with “So Long Dad,” where multiple versions of Harry are instructing someone to turn up one or another of the singing voices. I read that you did upwards of 100 vocal overdubs on some of these tracks. That’s insane, particularly on pre-digital recording technology.
So I ditched my band and made a studio album with almost none of it played live, and sang complex harmonies with myself. I thought I’d come back to the Harpoons and we’d keep on playing together, but by the time I resurfaced they’d all gotten into law school or started selling real estate or otherwise living happy and interesting lives. As for me, a solo career was born. Now if I only I could sing and write as well as you two, I’d really be getting somewhere.
Thanks for the album, guys.