Frank Sinatra - Watertown
For an artist who established himself in the 1950's, it might seem that I'm being wilfully obscure by choosing the 1970 concept album "Watertown" as my favourite Frank Sinatra record, but bear with me..
Apparently it only sold a few 100,000 copies and was universally panned by the critics at the time. Lord Google doesn't offer much in the way of positive reviews either with most people retrospectively dismissing it as Frank's failed attempt at a Rock Opera and/or a desperate ploy to appeal to a younger audience.
It seems that even Sinatra himself lost interest in it (a planned TV Special based around the story was canned) - so what's to like about it?
Well, this is the guy who INVENTED the concept album and I've always preferred his sad collections (Only The Lonely, Where Are You? In The Wee Small Hours etc) rather than the swing records (Songs For Swingin Lovers, Swing Easy, Swing Along With Me..) or the tenuously themed ones (Come Fly With Me..all the songs are about foreign places geddit? Moonlight Sinatra...all the songs have the word MOON in the title..genius!). Within that illustrious canon, Watertown is quite possibly his saddest album EVER.
Also the music was penned by original member of the Four Seasons, Bob Gaudio who's songwriting pedigree can't be argued with ("The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore", "Can't Take My Eyes Off You", "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" to name but a few).
Upon first listen it's the story of a man who has been deserted by his wife and left to bring up their two kids alone. Pretty much every song is addressed directly to the absent partner and the simplistic style of lyric reads like a series of letters. As the story develops, the Father receives news that she is coming back to them, but ultimately he's left stranded at the Railway Station as it becomes apparent that she was never aboard the train and won't ever return.
Admittedly I have listened to this album far too much and I started to think about the bits of the story that didn't add up.
Firstly, she has not only abandoned him but also the two kids - I know this DOES happen but is not exactly common behaviour amongst women. Secondly, he mentions that her Mother still comes by to help with the children and along with other friends they encourage him to move on and find a new love. Surely any Mother would concentrate on getting her wayward Daughter back on track and try to orchestrate a reconciliation? But he's not ready to move on, he's not over her and he can't understand why nobody sees this. Lastly I just don't get why she would say that she is coming back and then just not turn up, breaking his heart a second time. Then it dawned on me..
She's not coming back because she's dead.
The story would have you believe that she is just a troubled soul that couldn't settle and had to leave, but I'm convinced that the subtext is that she's actually passed away. At this point you begin to hear the songs as the painful wailing grief of a broken man - continually writing letters to a much loved deceased partner, refusing to accept that their perfect life has been torn apart - until eventually his state of mental collapse leads him to hallucinate that she has actually written back to him and promised to return...(he even admits in "The Train" that he never sent any of his letters, they're all still piled in the drawer..classic behaviour for a grieving widower)
OK..so the liner notes of the CD play it straight and stick with the simple interpretation that she has just upped & left him, but that's from the writers - I'm sure Frank knew the REAL meaning. The track "Goodbye (She Quietly Says)" is the part of the song cycle that is meant to explain why she left - but it doesn't offer any answers - "Good-bye, said so easily, Good-bye, said so quietly" - is as much explanation as he can muster. Even "Lady Day" the bonus track that they added to the reissue hints at the fact that the girl is dead - "Her morning came too fast too soon and died before the afternoon".
And so as he stands alone on the platform at the end - awash with the realisation that none of it is true, you can almost hear the thud as he slumps to the ground in cruel despair, his world sharply coming back into focus.
So what if it has a few rock orchestrations here and there, it's a masterpiece & Frank Sinatra's voice could express more emotion in one phrase than a million Chris Martin's trying REALLY HARD to sound emotional over the course of a really LONG song.
The opening verse of "Michael & Peter" still brings a tear to my eye each time I hear it, and the track "I Would Be In Love Anyway" is another howl of bereavement - "Though you'll never be with me, and there are no words to say, I'll still be in love anyway".
RIP The Voice.
Frank Sinatra - Michael And Peter (intro)
Frank Sinatra - I Would Be In Love Anyway
Wikepedia entry for Watertown
Buy Watertown on Amazon