Like his old pal and drinking buddy John Lennon, Harry Nilsson died right as he was plotting a comeback. After spending most of the ’80s in retirement (prompted in part by the trauma of Lennon’s murder), Nilsson had decided in the early ’90s to return to active musical duty. By then, the devilishly imaginative singer behind hits like “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Coconut” had fallen on difficult times, including serious health problems and the unwelcome discovery that his financial manager had embezzled his lifelong earnings. He needed cash.
After surviving a massive heart attack in early 1993, “he started writing and recording in earnest, hoping for a hit that would secure his family’s financial future,” Dawn Eden recounted in what would be Nilsson’s final interview. Of course, there would be no hit. The singer died on January 15, 1994, just days after completing vocal tracks for his would-be comeback record. It was thusly shelved, seemingly for good.
In 2019, that comeback finally seems to have arrived—only Nilsson isn’t here to enjoy it. Early this year, the jovial Nilsson Schmilsson classic “Gotta Get Up” served as the theme song for Netflix’s Russian Doll, introducing the singer’s work to a millennial audience. Several months later, millennial spokeperson Carly Rae Jepsen lovingly borrowed a Nilsson hook for the best track on Dedicated. Now, after 25 years of bootlegs and rumors, Nilsson’s last album, Losst and Founnd, is finally seeing release. It’s been newly completed by its original producer, Mark Hudson, who recruited a handful of the singer’s old buddies—Jimmy Webb, Van Dyke Parks, even Nilsson’s son Kiefo—to contribute. (Evidently, the original tapes were rough: “It just was Harry and I in the room with him chain-smoking and me playing every instrument,” Hudson told the Washington Post recently.)
Like Nilsson Schmilsson, Losst and Founnd flits restlessly from style to style, emphasizing the singer’s eclecticism and sense of humor. And while the songs are hardly as great as that 1971 masterpiece, nor the production as timeless, it is nice to hear Nilsson’s voice anew. His playful wit shines on “U.C.L.A.,” a lightly funky post-apocalyptic lament to a world he no longer recognized (including the dramatic irony of the late Nilsson singing lines like “There’s no more Ringo Starr”). It’s the kind of song that captures the surrealness of this project: long-abandoned 1990s recordings of a 1970s songwriter completed in 2019. Other appealing stylistic turns include “Woman Oh Woman,” a lush achievement in piano-and-accordion popcraft, and “Listen, The Snow Is Falling,” which transforms the 1969 Yoko Ono song into a slinky, slide-guitar groove.
By middle age, Nilsson’s once-golden voice had been ravaged by both alcoholism and aging, but on these recordings, he doesn’t sound as abrasive or hoarse as on, say, Pussy Cats two decades prior. He just sounds older—his octaves lower, his tone a bit wearier. Nor is there any trace of the boozy vulgarity that characterized those mid-seventies albums. The humor is more wry and settled. This 52-year-old Nilsson was a family man, and here we find him crooning a lullaby to his kid with honeyed strings for accompaniment (“Lullaby,” a suspiciously close cousin of Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy”) and doling out Beatles-esque platitudes about love (“Love Is the Answer,” which quotes Lennon’s “Mind Games”). Speaking of the Fab Four, “Try” shamelessly nicks its melody from “All You Need Is Love,” but it’s an affectionate homage and a fairly irresistible slice of pop.
On other tracks, it’s not clear that the instincts of Hudson, the Aerosmith hitmaker and Ringo Starr collaborator, are well-suited to Nilsson’s style. Rockers like “Lost and Found” and “Hi-Heel Sneakers/Rescue Boy Medley” are suffocated in slick guitars and overzealous horn arrangements, and fake crowd noise can’t rescue the embarrassing bar-band crunch of “Dodger Blue.” When the album ends with a dignified cover of Jimmy Webb’s “What Does A Woman See In A Man,” it’s a relief to hear Nilsson’s voice set against a relatively spare arrangement of piano and strings.
Nonetheless, Hudson’s heart is in the project. He was a close confidant of Nilsson who first befriended the singer in 1969 and had been gently trying to coax him out of retirement since around 1986. Fans who buy the physical CD will note that the liner notes contain a heartfelt letter the producer wrote his deceased friend. “[T]owards the end of making the album, I almost started to think you were still here,” he writes, “and now I know… you are.”
I do sometimes wonder what Nilsson would have gotten up to musically if he had survived into old age. Would he have gone the Johnny Cash route, teaming up with Rick Rubin for a set of spare, austere covers? Might he have embraced his voice’s degradation, like Leonard Cohen, and grunted and growled over contemporary synthesizers? Or would he have become a reclusive Syd Barrett or Sly Stone type?
That mystery won’t be solved. But for longtime fans, Losst And Founnd does solve another. It lets us know, after all these decades, what Nilsson was cooking up for us when he died: an affectionate, if uneven, tribute to happier times.