I’ve spent a fair amount of time proselytizing about Sean Nelson and now-defunct Harvey Danger (not to mention the work he’s done with the Long Winters, Robyn Hitchcock, Nada Surf…). One thing I can say for certain: there is no such thing as a casual Sean Nelson fan. I know I’ve found a kindred spirit if immediately upon invoking his name, people want to delve into the dense lyrical back catalogue of beautiful music he’s created. And if they don’t react— well, after I’m done talking, they’ll at least recognize his name the next time someone brings him up.
Artists like Nelson invite obsession, perhaps because as an artist, he’s so open with his own repetitive worries and thoughts. Themes carry from record to record, and little moments you think are meaningless eventually become the gut-punch you’ve been waiting for. For me, that obsession is rooted in the fact that Sean Nelson is a man who makes art for art’s sake. We don’t have a lot of Aesthetes in today’s culture, and there is something raw and pure about his knowledge that he is singing to an audience of Ahabs. And if we’re going with a Moby Dick theme (I feel as though we have to, to honor the threads of it in Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?), Nelson Sings Nilsson has long been the fanatic’s white whale.
When I say “long,” I’m not kidding. When Harvey Danger broke up, they released another perfect song in “The Show Must Not Go On” (because that was all they knew how to do), and Nelson buried himself in Harry Nilsson’s music (not unlike the way, after I had a stroke, I buried myself in Nelson’s music). Nilsson’s understanding of the way the world is both farcical and cruel, hilarious and brutal, is the same gallow’s humor strength that always stood out about Harvey Danger to me. Sometimes I think those records helped make me who I am. (When I’m honest? I know they did.) And so, in a move of surrealism and absurdity, Sean Nelson decided it would be funny to riff off the classic Nilsson Sings Newman and bring his favorite Harry Nilsson songs to light. He even admits in the liner notes that he thought it was funny because “who the hell is this Nelson character?” But because life so often gets in the way of anything that we do just because we’re passionate about it, the project has been shelved and unshelved, almost labeled and saw those labels fail, demoed and then never finished.
Until now. Sean Nelson’s Nelson Sings Nilsson hits streaming sites. This is great news for Nilsson fans, Nelson fans— and anyone who is a fan of beautiful art that is just being made as a love letter to the art that makes us the people we are. We have become so conditioned to seeing music as a product— but how can a record with no hard copies, no revenue, not promotion, and no ads be a product?
Simple. It can’t be. Nelson Sings Nilsson is purely art (and good, high art: many songs are vamped up and given a theatrical spin, some are taken down to their skeletons) that was made to honor other pure art— actual aestheticism. Nelson isn’t covering “Everybody’s Talking At Me.” He’s dug deep into his emotional well to find the songs he can meld Nilsson’s original lyrics with his own pathos and understanding of self. Nilsson’s songwriting shines, but Nelson’s arrangements (there are several tracks with backup singers, orchestral sweeps, or even children’s choirs) and more, vocal phrasing— he knows when to be vulnerable and when to punch you in the diaphragm— are what allow a listener to examine these songs in a way that, at best, causes reflection and questioning. These lyrics aren’t for a casual listener— so again, Nelson is the only man for a job this hard.
For me, one of the most exciting things about finally hearing the record was exploring the way Nelson organized Nilsson’s brilliant catalogue. “Gotta Get Up” is a natural starter, but “Daddy’s Song” is far from a natural second. The record builds in terms of energy and performance, as all Nelson’s do, based on tension: in the joy, you can always hear the edge of anxiety in his voice. Anything too sad is balanced with an understanding of the absurdity of life, but what is stunning to me is that Nelson’s natural ability to interpret other people’s art turned into him knowing how to tell us as the listener the story of Harry Nilsson and why he fell in love. I had to pull over this morning when I was listening through the final master: I have known “Daddy’s Song” for most of my life, and Nilsson’s final verse—
The years have passed and so have I
Making it hard for me to cry
And if and when I have a son
Let it all be said and done
Let the sadness pass him by
—immediately let me know why it had to come so early in the record. Nilsson’s work is, at its finest, both comedic and tragic. It’s not unlike the Romantic poets and the Aesthetic movements in literature and art: he finds a way to be lush and descriptive. But at the end of the day, Nilsson can drop a verse like that and end a mostly upbeat song on a note that makes me want to cry.
But the way Nelson delivers it. The softness and the tenderness is exactly why he had to make this record. That vulnerability is Nelson’s love letter to what good ‘60s and ‘70s music does for us as human beings: it teaches us that it’s OK to be vulnerable, to be afraid of the person you are or might become, to laugh when life is hard.
“Maybe” is especially well-delivered and arranged for that: the music is playful in places, and the percussive vocals that punctuate the elongated lines trick you into forgetting the heartbreak evident in the first line— “Maybe, maybe you wouldn’t be leaving if only I’d change.” Nilsson darts away (for a moment) from how badly that hurts by shoving too many syllables in to the next line, and Nelson pulls the line off easily: “You say I’m acting like a kid/ Well, maybe I’m doing what I’m doing cos I done what I did when I was a kid.” The first few lines actual evoke a little humor (fast meter will do that: Nilsson knew the value of syllabic count in a song line, and Nelson knows how to deliver. The internal rhyme speeds the line up, too, which makes it irresistibly fun to try and sing along with.)
But Nelson busts out into his absolutely delightful vaudevillian range on sillier lines, like when he promises the woman he’d learn to love her family— “I swear I’d miss her/ And every day before I’d go to work/ I swear I’d kiss her”— but then, there’s a dramatic pause before his playful, “Maybe” as the female backup singers sigh. Nilsson’s version is absolutely beautiful, but if you’re paying attention to the lyrics, this isn’t a song of tiumph, nothing that deserves pride and flirting. This is a man desperate. Nilsson sings it like a man already defeated. Nelson rolls in with false bravado so he can overpower a listener with the end.
But God. The ending. Does he stick the ending. I’ve been unable to take it off repeat. It is almost physically difficult to listen to him scream, “Laugh at me but please don’t leave me.” It’s so striking that I become aware of my own heartbeat, like I am more in my body. That kind of pleading is so universal, it is almost like becoming more human to listen to it.
Perhaps best of all, as my friend Adam put it in an unrelated context, that humor is not the enemy of profundity. Harry Nilsson wrote songs about daily life— songs like “Think About Your Troubles” literally follow the life cycle of water and a dying whale (there’s that Moby Dick again…). Nelson knows why daily life matters: it’s because all those little tragedies, the ones that gurus and posters tell you “won’t matter in five years,” those moments deserve to be honored, too. What greater form of honor and love is there than to pour your life— eighteen years— into an aesthetic project?
I can’t play piano and I can’t sing like Sean Nelson. Mullins Sings Nelson would obviously be ridiculous as my name starts with an “M.” But I can write a love letter to Nelson Sings Nilsson— I can do it whether anyone reads it or not, in honor of the bravery it takes to create something just for the joy and love of creating. And maybe if I do it well enough, everyone will share these musicians with me. Maybe