[Review] Nilsson: Aerial Ballet (1968)

A perfect balancing act between Harry Nilsson’s golden pipes and George Tipton’s gilded arrangements.

Kronomyth 3.0: He flies through 12 tracks with the greatest of ease.

Nilsson’s brilliant songwriting and marvelous, multitracked voice are the stars of the show on Aerial Ballet. If The Beatles liked his last record (and apparently they did), they must have been head over heels about Aerial Ballet. Here was the perfect balance between Harry Nilsson and arranger George Tipton, who (like another George) added just the right mix of horns and strings to sweeten everything. You knew Nilsson was special after listening to Pandemonium Shadow Show; you knew why after hearing Aerial Ballet.

On his last album, there were moments when it sounded like Nilsson might be the new Neil Diamond. Aerial Ballet is the work of a new artist. Nilsson (like most musicians on the planet) was influenced by the pop music of The Beatles, particularly those songs that featured horns and strings (“Penny Lane,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “For No One”). His use of the human voice, however, is unique to him, from the chorus of throat clearing on “Daddy’s Song” to his almost horn-like vocalizing on songs like “I Said Goodbye To Me” and “Everybody’s Talkin’.” And then there’s his seemingly effortless facility for songcraft; even the tunes that were left off the album (e.g., “Girlfriend,” “Miss Butter’s Lament”) are breathtaking.

A quick glance at the album’s content reveals a couple of classics: “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “One.” But it’s the songs you may not have heard before that will make you stand up and cheer for Aerial Ballet. Nilsson could take personal pain (“Together,” “Daddy’s Song”), the spiritual (“Good Old Desk”) and even the profane (“Bath”) and make it art. He could create sympathetic characters (“Mr. Tinker,” “Mr. Richard’s Favorite Song”) in the same vein as Paul McCartney (“Eleanor Rigby,” “She’s Leaving Home”) and gild them with melody. The wonder of Aerial Ballet is that Nilsson does it all so perfectly, effortlessly. You wait for the hand to slip, for the album to fall from its impossible heights of pop perfection, yet it never does. Nilsson doesn’t even stop to take a bow at the end; instead, he shuffles off stage to take a bath.

Albums like Aerial Ballet are a rarity, because few artists are able to work within pop’s established idiom to paint masterpieces. 10cc, Billy Joel, Elton John, ELO and, of course, The Beatles come to mind. They’re confectioners with a taste for complexity, pop artists who understand that audiences are as transfixed by the brutality of the ballet as the beauty of it. In some ways, Aerial Ballet is a brutal portrait of a pained life; in every way, it is a pop album of exceptional intelligence and beauty.

[Note: I’m not at all happy with this review, so I reserve the right to rewrite it later.]

Original elpee version

A1. Good Old Desk (2:22)
A2. Don’t Leave Me (2:18)
A3. Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song (2:12)
A4. Little Cowboy (1:20)
A5. Together (2:08)
B1. Everybody’s Talkin’ (Fred Neil) (2:41)
B2. I Said Goodbye To Me (2:13)
B3. Little Cowboy (0:49)
B4. Mr. Tinker (2:41)
B5. One (2:50)
B6. The Wailing of the Willow (Harry Nilsson/Ian Freebairn-Smith) (1:57)
B7. Bath (1:44)

All songs written by Nilsson unless noted. Arranged by George Tipton.

Cassette version
A1. Everybody’s Talkin’
A2. Little Cowboy
A3. Together
A4. Good Old Desk
A5. I Said Goodbye To Me
A6. The Wailing of the Willow
B1. Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song
B2. Mr. Tinker
B3. Bath
B4. One
B5. Little Cowboy
B6. Don’t Leave Me

Pickwick elpee reissue
A1. Good Old Desk
A2. Don’t Leave Me
A3. Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song
A4. One
A5. Together
B1. Everbody’s Talkin’ To Me
B2. I Said Goodbye To Me
B3. Mr. Tinker
B4. Little Cowboy
B5. The Wailing of the Willow

Compact disc version
1. Daddy’s Song
2. Good Old Desk
3. Don’t Leave Me
4. Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song
5. Little Cowboy
6. Together
7. Everybody’s Talkin’
8. I Said Goodbye To Me
9. Little Cowboy
10. Mr. Tinker
11. One
12. The Wailing of the Willow
13. Bath

CD reissue bonus tracks
14. Sister Marie
15. Miss Butter’s Lament
16. Girlfriend

The Players

Produced by Rick Jarrard. Technician: Pat Ieraci. Recording engineered by Hank Magill, Grover Hilsley, Allen Lentz, Brian Christian.

The Pictures

Cover illustration by Dick Hendler. Original liner notes by Derek Taylor.

The Plastic

Released on mono and stereo elpee on June 24, 1968 in the US (RCA Victor, LPM/LSP 3956).

  1. Re-issued on elpee in 1969 in the US (RCA, LSP 3956) {orange label}, the UK (RCA, RD 7973) and Japan (RCA, RCA-6151).
  2. Re-released on cassette and 8-track in the US (RCA Victor, PK/P8S-1380) with different track order.
  3. Re-released on edited, remastered elpee in 1980 in Canada (Pickwick, ACL-7075) minus 2 tracks with unique cover.
  4. Re-released on expanded, remastered compact disc in 1995 in the US (RCA, 3956-2) with one bonus track.
  5. Re-packaged with Aerial Ballet and Aerial Pandemonium Ballet on expanded 3-for-2 2CD in 2000 in Europe (BMG, 757422) with 4 bonus tracks.
  6. Re-issued on compact disc in 2003 in Japan (RCA, BVCM-37242).
  7. Re-released on expanded, blu-spec compact disc on March 6, 2013 in Japan (Sony, SICP 30080) with 4 bonus tracks.
  8. Re-issued on elpee and colored vinyl elpee in 2014 in the US (Sundazed, LP 5468).
  9. Re-released on 180g vinyl elpee in 2017 in the US (Speakers Corner, 3956).

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