Welcome back, old friend. Omnivore Recordings has delivered one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the year with the first posthumous release from the late Harry Nilsson (1941-1994). Losst and Founnd premieres 43 minutes of “new” Nilsson music, and as the man himself sings on the title track, “what a miracle” it is. While longtime fans and collectors will be familiar with a handful of these recordings from their inclusion on a posthumous publishing promo and ubiquitous bootlegs of the sessions, it’s safe to say that nobody’s heard them sounding quite like this. Original producer Mark Hudson has spiffed up and completed these tracks in Nilsson’s memory, enlisting a number of his old friends (such as Jimmy Webb, Van Dyke Parks, and Jim Keltner, as well as son Kiefo Nilsson) and creating his first new album since 1980’s Flash Harry.
The opening title song is the obvious “single” here. The melodic “Lost and Found” is the slickest, most “produced” track on the LP with its shimmering guitars, horns, harmonies, and a big hook. It’s a bit like what Nilsson might have sounded like fronting the Traveling Wilburys, and makes for an exciting opener to a low-key, amiable collection. Nilsson was crafting these recordings at the time of his death in 1994, after years of self-imposed exile from the studio. It’s clear that even with a voice diminished by time and cigarettes, his creative spark hadn’t abandoned him at all.
“U.C.L.A.,” one of two songs on the Perfect Day publishing promo, is quintessential Nilsson. The wistful, elegiac lament’s melody accompanies a lyric that’s both melancholy and dryly witty (“There’s no one left to lie to/But my car”) with trademark Nilsson wordplay. There’s even a final glimpse of that famous Nilsson falsetto. Of course, Harry couldn’t help but pay homage to his friends and musical heroes The Beatles: “There is no place like Penny Lane/There’s no more yesterday/But something in the way you move me/Keeps me movin’ on from day to day.” Those references are set to corresponding instrumental flourishes, recalling the artist’s clever reworking of the Fabs’ “You Can’t Do That” on his 1967 debut. The other song introduced on Perfect Day, “Animal Farm,” has abundant charm. Nilsson’s dry vocal almost calls Randy Newman to mind, while the woozy brass arrangement and “Give Peace a Chance” quote keep it happily idiosyncratic.
Losst and Founnd showcases the many sides of the always-eclectic artist, from humorous to earnest. From Nilsson the balladeer, there’s the loping lament “Woman Oh Woman” with its Brian Wilson-esque arrangement featuring voices, sleigh bells, and brass, and Van Dyke Parks on colorful accordion; the sweetly touching, harmony-rich “Lullaby;” and the slow, dreamy anthem “Love Is the Answer.” The latter was written with Perry Botkin, Jr. for their short-lived 1980 musical Zapata (another project worthy of re-evaluation). Those seeking Nilsson’s more rock-oriented side won’t be disappointed by the raucous if slight “Yo Dodger Blue,” which deserves a play or three at Dodger Stadium. Nilsson cries “Rescue boy!” on “Lost and Found,” and the “Rescue Boy” motif is later developed in a lively medley with the oldie “Hi-Heel Sneakers.” It’s certainly touching to hear the late-in-life Nilsson on the happily positive, bouncy admonition to “Try.” There’s more than a hint of “All You Need Is Love” in the sing-along melody (“There’s no limit to the blue sky/All you gotta do is try, try, try”) and a beautiful simplicity to the track.
A couple of well-chosen covers spotlight Nilsson as an interpretive singer, an area in which the vocalist always excelled. His rendition of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, the Snow Is Falling” has a lo-fi appeal here. Nilsson’s vocal is swathed in echo over the lightly grooving Asian motif. (Nilsson additionally recorded many of Ono’s songs including three on the 1984 Ono tribute Every Man Has a Woman and “Never Say Goodbye” from her musical New York Rock.) Even better still is the take on Jimmy Webb’s “What Does a Woman See in a Man,” originally recorded by Webb on his 1993 album Suspending Disbelief. The story goes that Nilsson was always bugging his close friend Webb, he of gorgeously sincere songs like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman,” to write something funny. Well, here’s Jimmy with an admittedly rare stab at humor which Nilsson surely savored. Webb has added ironically sensitive piano, while Jim Cox has provided a beautiful string arrangement. Of course, Webb being Webb, the melody can’t help but being gorgeous. Nilsson, even with his voice in a rough state, sells the song with relish. It makes for the perfect closer to this affecting album.
Producer Hudson along with executive producers Brad Rosenberger and Lee Blackman has selected eleven fine cuts for Losst and Founnd. Greg Calbi has mastered for sublime sound throughout, and Hudson has supplied a heartfelt personal introduction. Not every track which has circulated from the Nilsson/Hudson sessions has made the cut here, with “245 Lb. Man,” “It’s All in the Mind,” “Misery and Gin,” “Strange Love,” and a remake of “This Could Be the Night” all absent. So, while it’s a tantalizing to consider that there may be further releases to come (Nilsson left behind volumes of excellent demos, as well), Losst and Founnd is all that fans could have hoped for and more over these past decades: a poignant last hurrah from a singular artist and soul. As Nilsson sings in “Lullaby,” “There’s nothing left to say but I love you.” Indeed, we still love you too, Harry Nilsson.