When it comes to the subject of numbers, it sort of all starts with the number 1, doesn't it? In some ways, it also ends there as well, when you think of “1” as the completion of the whole: 100%, a full circle, the high end of a probability ratio. Zero is nothing, and one is everything: everything in between is just partial.
But then there's 2. Which in relationships, is the perfect, ideal number, and can make 1 seem like so much less than the whole. And that's where Harry Nilsson was coming from when he wrote “One” for his second album, 1968's Aerial Ballet. And whereas the better known version of the song is the cover recorded by Three Dog Night and released actually a month prior to Nilsson's, theirs lacks the intimate despair of Nilsson's version. They belt out their anguish, wanting the world to know their pain; Harry sits quietly in his room and thinks the same thoughts but all to himself, maybe as he writes a letter to his ex that he'll never actually send. And that makes the song seem so much more sad and, yes, lonely -- not exactly the stage tragedy of the Three Dog Night version.
Possibly the song's most potent line: “One is a number divided by two.” Which, actually, is a half, and that's what Nilsson is feeling like: half a person, without his other. The end of the relationship is tearing him apart. And the result is, to paraphrase the song, one of the greatest pop songs of heartbreak that you'll ever do.
-- Dave Gershman, Reselect.com