Harry Nilsson spent almost all of his rich, idiosyncratic, sometimes maddening career at RCA Records, releasing his bravura debut, Pandemonium Shadow Show, in 1967 and fading into the sunset with 1977's Knnillssonn. During those ten years, he released 14 albums and left behind a bunch of stray tracks, almost all of which are gathered on Legacy's massive and wonderful 2013 box The RCA Albums Collection. Every one of his albums is here, presented as mini-LP replicas and expanded with mono mixes, outtakes, demos, and alternate takes, many of which previously appeared on turn-of-the-millennium reissues by Buddha and Camden, but there are also three full discs of rarities, adding up to 123 total bonus tracks, 55 of which are seeing their first release here. Notably, the five-song demo session that convinced the Monkees to record "Cuddly Toy" (and also includes Harry's only version of "This Could Be the Night," an early song co-written with Phil Spector) sees its first official release, but there are many other wonderful little gems scattered throughout the session discs.
Those are the necessary, enticing details for collectors, but concentrating on rarities at the expense of the big picture isn't the way to approach The RCA Albums Collection, as this allows the work of one of pop's true eccentric geniuses to be appreciated in its entirety. Nilsson's career divides into two parts, the first tracing the rise of an L.A. studio genius who rode several lucky breaks on the road to becoming a respected and successful songwriter; the second finding Harry ditching almost everything that came before in a successful attempt to indulge his every whim. Usually, the first act overshadows the second, as their attributes are more readily apparent. It's easy to hear the intelligence behind the songwriting and the intricately arranged productions of his work from 1967-1971, whereas the second seven LPs take some work on the listener's part, but the continuum offered by The RCA Albums Collection reveals that these often-derided albums wind up seeming stronger than their rep. Nilsson's relentless wit shines through, albeit often in bawdier form than before, and his musical acumen remains sharp. The only thing missing is that wondrous, pure voice, one which legendarily scaled three-and-a-half octaves and was worn down by Harry's relentless demons, but he was a smart singer, so he knew how to harness his hoarseness to his advantage, at least in the studio. Then again, Nilsson was a creature of the studio, a vocalist who never gave a concert, a songwriter who polished everything within the confines of multi-million dollar recording emporiums. He benefitted from the system then swindled it, creating recordings that evoked and influenced the times and, in doing so, transcended them as well. Seventeen discs may be an enormous undertaking, and admittedly some of the road is rocky, but the journey Harry Nilsson takes on The RCA Albums Collection is distinctive and thrilling, whether it's heard for the first or 40th time.