Listen to this track by lyrical singer-songwriter who had Beatles for fans Harry Nilsson. It’s “One”, a song taken from his 1968 record Aerial Ballet, his second album. The song would be covered and become better known by Three Dog Night in the next decade. It would later appear in another form as covered by Aimee Mann for the soundtrack for the film Magnolia. That’s just a start to the list of those who would cover the song over a span of years.
The tune’s bright and cheery keyboard line hides an undercurrent of melancholy even musically speaking before the lyrics kick in to reinforce the themes of isolation and distance. You’ll notice that descending chordal motif that would also be the hallmark of another songwriter, John Lennon.
Lennon was an early fan of Nilsson’s, as were the other Beatles. This may be because like them, Nilsson wrote catchy tunes that held incredible dimension when viewed from different angles. This is one of the best examples of that quality.
Maybe this knack of Nilsson’s came from his background in singing jingles, while he wasn’t holding down a fairly late-in-the-day job as a bank clerk even after his first album hit the charts in 1967.
Nilsson is probably best known by casual music fans as being a singer of considerable range on songs written by others. His big break was his cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” which was featured in the film Midnight Cowboy. Later on, he’d have another big hit in “Without You”, written by Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans. It would be Nilsson’s take on it that would inform all others to follow over the decades.
But, Nilsson’s strength was as a songwriter, and an arranger in the studio. Never a live performer, his primary motivation was in the creation of compact pop songs, some of which like this one were so catchy, it’s a wonder that he didn’t have a wider audience even if he didn’t tour. Perhaps it was because the songs sounded so lightweight, at least on the surface. Some of his material is pretty quirky and childlike too, well before that was established as a mainstream songwriting direction among indie bands.
“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do”; it’s an odd turn of phrase. It could mean anything. And yet, it affects a listener on an instinctive level. We know exactly what it means, even though at the same time we don’t. This effect adds to the idea of isolation, of loneliness, of not being entirely understood. And the insistent piano line which was bright and cheerful at the outset, becomes something quietly ominous as the song progresses. It’s a subtle effect that underscores Nilsson’s ear for arrangement.
And then there’s his voice of course, always controlled, and never going over the top, which is a temptation not easily avoided in songs that hit on themes of isolation and loneliness like this one does. This tune can easily turn into a tear-your-heart-out kind of song in the wrong hands. But, with Nilsson’s performance, it becomes a theme song to a Thoreau-esque life of quiet desperation instead.
This song isn’t about tragic, operatic loneliness, so much as it is about the loneliness one feels every so often without being entirely aware of it. It’s mundane, garden variety loneliness being sung about here, the kind that usually goes unsung; being home alone while your lover is away, missing a child who doesn’t live with you, standing in the corner at a party where you were expecting to see someone you love, but they’ve decided not to come. This is the emotional territory of this song. That’s why it has such impact; because we’ve all felt that way, and more often than we care to admit.
Harry Nilsson would grow in stature among his rock peers in the 1970s. He was a mainstay on the LA scene when John Lennon was in his Lost Weekend period, and the two men got into trouble on a regular basis together as drinking buddies. He would lose momentum by the end of the decade, partly because of his non-commercial direction, and because of his self-destructive personal habits.
He died in 1994, not before becoming an influence to songwriters who pull from pre-rock sources, and who put out records that record companies and audiences don’t expect, just like he did.
To learn more, catch the movie Who Is Harry Nilsson, and Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?