If ever there were an ideal musical collaboration, Nilsson Sings Newman would come close to setting the standard. For his fifth studio album, Harry Nilsson decided to record the compositions of a little-known songwriter named Randy Newman. It was a prescient decision by Nilsson – a supremely gifted songwriter – to swallow his ego and put his trust in an obscure composer with a limited resume. Though commercially disappointing, the album was a critical favorite, and gave momentum to Newman’s nascent career. The beauty of Nilsson Sings Newman is in its adherence to subtlety. Nilsson’s vocals – with Newman’s accompaniment on the piano – are enhanced by the sparseness of the tracks. Newman’s writing is wry and clever, and features a complexity that can be lost upon casual listening. It is an album of quiet moments that pack an emotional punch.
Released in 1970, Nilsson Sings Newman was antithetical for its time. It can be considered a minor miracle it was released at all. It lacked brashness and grandiosity, was devoid of counterculture symbolism, and could hardly be classified as psychedelic – an oddly gentle record during a time when rocking the boat was de rigueur. What it featured was the cohesive union of talented musicians. Its great strength was its craftsmanship. It is an album that was constructed, but retained a sense of wonder – the thought that something new and wondrously different is about to occur – that makes music appealing. Artful arrangements, insightful songwriting, Nilsson’s warm and welcoming vocals, Newman at the keys – looking back, it would seem a surprise if it were an unsuccessful partnership.
There is a grace and elegance to Nilsson Sings Newman, and its understated brilliance can be immediately difficult to discern – a record that begs for repeat listening. It is an album where emotions lie just under the surface, but with an attentive ear, are audibly stark and raw.