Harry Nilsson was always a maverick artist, following his own sense of style down the hallways of pop, turning out carefully crafted, sometimes baffling songs that shared no direct affinity with any other artist of his day, although in some ways he resembled Randy Newman, even recording a wonderful album celebrating Newman's songs. Both men drew on American Tin Pan Alley and Broadway traditions, but while Newman used them to craft his own ironic view of the little cruelties and kindnesses of the human condition, there was a part of Nilsson that always wanted to actually live inside that tradition, making him, in some ways, a singer stuck sadly out of time.
In 1973 he released A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, an album of pop standards from the pre-rock era done with the arranging and conducting help of Gordon Jenkins, who had worked in a similar role with such musicians as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong. This was Nilsson's dream, the album heâ€™d always wanted to make, but unfortunately it wasnâ€™t particularly well received by his rock fans, and when a sort of sequel, A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night, was released in 1988, it was a whole different world by then, and hardly anyone noticed.
As Time Goes By, released by Camden Records in 1997, combines both of these albums -- the complete Schmilsson, if you will -- into one strong sequence, and it affords a chance to take another look at this phase of Nilsson's career. Always a fine song interpreter, Nilsson's lyrical phrasing on such standards here as the title tune, "As Time Goes By," which originally appeared in the 1942 movie Casablanca (and don't think for a second that Nilsson didn't know this), Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson's "Makin' Whoopee," and Harold Arlen's "It's Only a Paper Moon" is nothing short of astounding, redefining and breathing life into these songs for a new era. Always a master of the hushed nuance, the gentle dignity and sincerity of Nilsson's singing stands at the very heart of this collection. Jenkins' full orchestra arrangements don't intrude, but augment and support the delicate twists and turns of Nilsson's phrasing, making this a wonderfully realized and very romantic album (in the best sense of the word). Having both Schmilsson titles together like this actually makes for a stronger presentation of these timeless song interpretations, and while fans of Nilsson's rockier side may well be disappointed by As Time Goes By, it is, in many ways, a much more revealing look at Nilsson's personal vision for pop music than a collection of his hits might be, although in this case, each guise affirms the other.