Albums You Should Own: Watertown, Frank Sinatra
Note for people coming here from Watertownology — you should probably read this.
If ever I’m asked why I think hipsters are wankers, Watertown is exhibit one.
Watertown is an album whose good qualities are absolutely self-evident. Anyone with ears – and I do mean anyone – would have to admit this is a very good album. In terms of thematic unity, quality, and feel, this site easily with the first four Scott Walker solo albums, Pet Sounds, Astral Weeks and the first couple of Leonard Cohen albums. While it was never a hit, it’s not like Sinatra is a horribly obscure artist, and so by rights this should, at the very least, be one of those albums that get ‘rediscovered’ by that weird coalition of hipsters and Mojo-reading dadrock lovers that brought Nick Drake, Big Star and Pacific Ocean Blue out of obscurity.
But the difference is that all the music I’ve mentioned above is essentially juvenile, and therefore ‘cool’. The concerns of, say, Pet Sounds, magnificent as it is, are those of a teenager – does she really love me? How can I balance what I want with what my parents say? Do I really love her? And teenage angst is cool and romantic.
Even Sinatra’s own earlier work – say Sings For Only The Lonely, no matter how downbeat, are the loneliness of a rinky-dink, shooby-dooby-doo swell kinda guy man about town, sat depressed in a New York bar at midnight with his suit disheveled and his tie hanging loose telling the barman about the one who got away.So they’re OK.
Watertown on the other hand is different. It’s a concept album, like many of Sinatra’s early albums, but this is a specially-composed song cycle, and it’s told from the point of view of a middle-aged divorcé trying to bring up his two kids as a single parent in a small town, reflecting on his wife’s adultery, constantly reliving the last moments of his marriage, and trying to find a way to make it not have happened.
Where’s the fun in that?!
Actually, before I continue, I’m going to put in a Spoiler warning, because this album does have a plot, and a twist in the tale, and all those kind of things, and it really is best experienced without knowing much more about it. If you haven’t heard the album before, and you have any respect for my opinions whatsoever, go and buy it. The CD is out of print and is apparently selling for sixty quid on Amazon UK (but I’m not selling mine), but Amazon US has it for sale as MP3s for $9.99 (you could save nine cents if you wanted by not bothering with inessential CD bonus track Lady Day). Go and buy it, and listen to it, now.
Then do like I just had to, having listened to that album once already while writing this, and have a little cry on the shoulder of your spouse or closest approximation thereto.
Finished? Eyes dry? Then I’m going to start talking through this track by track. I’ll be talking mostly about the lyrics, but the music (by Bob Gaudio, produced and arranged by Gaudio and Charles Calello) is absolutely astonishing. Gaudio was the principal composer for the Four Seasons, and you can definitely imagine that other Italian-American Frankie singing these melodies, but he keeps carefully within Sinatra’s notoriously limited range, allowing Sinatra to do what he did best, just act the role in that gorgeous voice.
In fact, the album Watertown resembles most in this respect is Macarthur Park, Jimmy Webb’s suite of songs for the similarly-limited Richard Harris – but of course Harris didn’t have Sinatra’s voice, or his musical sensibilities, and while Webb’s songs were great, they were nothing compared to these. And Sinatra here has the advantage that every track here is sung from the point of view of the same character – it’s one half-hour monologue, not a series of sketches.
Gaudio and Calello also do a marvellous job of orchestrating the album as a whole, with leitmotifs recurring throughout – the high, slightly out of tune piano chords, the drums emulating the rhythm of the train – giving the whole album a unified theme like no other album in popular music outside possibly Smile.
The lyrics, meanwhile, were by Jake Holmes – a very strange figure from whom Led Zeppelin stole Dazed And Confused, and who later wrote the Be Who You Can Be In The Army jingle, but who had just finished collaborating with Gaudio on another astonishing album, the Four Seasons’ Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, which I wrote about here. Astonishingly, Holmes was only thirty – younger than me – when he wrote these astonishingly mature lyrics.
The album itself was (like that other great narrative concept album Arthur by The Kinks) originally intended to have a TV special attached to it which never materialised, and the opening track, Watertown, is clearly the music for the opening credits. Starting hesitantly, with a slightly out-of-time bass, we get a portrait of a small town from a distance, slowly zooming in (and it’s so cinematic I can see precisely the shots in my head, and I’m not a visual person) on one man standing alone in a train station.
The only song on the album not sung from the perspective of our narrator, this is the establishing shot before the main story starts, but even here, the narrator’s voice breaks in, and is singing to someone – “It’s gonna be a lonely place/without the look of your familiar face”, and immediately after we get hints that maybe the narrator isn’t to be trusted (“But who can say it’s not that way?”) before woodwinds, bass and arpeggiated guitar take us out over a train sound that is, in context, much sadder than the one at the end of Caroline, No.
Goodbye (She Quietly Says) is a wonderfully sparse, distanced description of a relationship breaking up (“Just two always-strangers avoid each other’s eyes/One still make-believing, one still telling lies/She tells me that I’m not to blame but when I ask the reason why/She reaches out across the table, looks at me and quietly says ‘goodbye’”).
I’ve read some interpretations of this song which suggest the woman in it is actually dying, not just leaving our narrator (which puts a whole new spin on the last song) but it’s too mundane for that. It’s the ‘always-strangers’ that gets me, here. The narrator, who is never named, clearly adores his wife Elizabeth beyond all reason, but doesn’t actually know her at all.
For A While is, in the context of this album, almost a cheerful song – “Lost another day, turned another way/With a laugh, a kind hello/Some small talk with those I know/I forget that I’m not over you for a while”. Musically, this sounds quite a lot like some of the waltzes Brian Wilson was doing around the same time, like Time To Get Alone – all light and breezy. Sinatra genuinely sounds like he means lines like “Days go by with no empty feeling/until I remember you’re gone”. It’s also the first song to be addressed, as most of the album is, directly to his lost love (incidentally, if you *do* want to argue that she’s dead rather than just having left him, this is an important point – the song about her leaving is told abstractly, not to her as a listener. Possibly because our narrator doesn’t want to face knowing that she knows it’s not true?)
Michael And Peter is a letter to Elizabeth about their two children (“Michael is you/he has your face/he still has your eyes/remember?/Peter is me/’cept when he smiles/And if you look/at them both for a while/you can see/they are you/they are me”) and about the mundane details of everyday life (“I think the house could use some paint/you know your mother’s such a saint/she takes the boys whenever she can/she sure needs a man” – and what does THAT say about the relationship, that the mother-in-law is still helping out her son-in-law, while her daughter is God knows where?). Constantly skirting around the problems he’s having, we still have hints that something’s not right in this narration “As far as anyone can tell, the sun will rise tomorrow”, “You’ll never believe how much they’re growing”, “Guess that’s all the news I’ve got today/Least that’s all the news that I can say”
I Would Be In Love Anyway is one of the most conventional songs on the album. The main message is that even though their marriage has ended, it was worth it (“If I lived the past over/saw today from yesterday/I would be in love anyway”) and once again we have the recurring themes of the lack of communication between them, the narrator’s unreliability and general inability to talk (“Though you’ll never be with me/And there are no words to say/I would be in love anyway”).
The thing I’m not getting across here is that this is, by this point, a fully-rounded character, who isn’t even aware of everything he’s telling us – “If I knew then, what I know now/I don’t believe I’d ever change, somehow”. Yes, he’s saying that he’d still love her – that he *DOES* still love her – no matter what, but he’s also saying *he won’t ever change and has never changed*. She changed, and grew up, and he didn’t. And the poor man doesn’t even realise it.
Elizabeth is just a fairly standard song of lost love sung to the person lost, one of the comparatively weaker songs on the album, although the narrator’s view of his wife as a fantasy, a dream, and the utter lack of detail about her other than her name, is telling. And “Dressed in memories/you are what you used to be” is simultaneously beautiful and creepy as hell.
On the other hand What A Funny Girl (You Used To Be) says *far* more about his wife’s character. “You always had a thousand things to do/Getting so involved in something new/Always some new recipe, the kitchen always looked like World War Three/What a funny girl you used to be”. “You’d fall for lines so easily, whatever they were selling, you’d buy three”. Suddenly, for the first time on the album, the ex-wife is a character, and we can see that someone so full of life and energy could never, ever have stayed with someone so fundamentally conservative (not to mention patronising – he almost sounds more like her father than her lover. This is especially worrying when you factor in the lines a few songs earlier about how her mother ‘needs a man’). He’d never understood that the things he loved most about her were precisely those things that meant they could never stay together.
What’s Now Is Now is… Christ, this is just the most astonishingly upsetting song ever. “Some day I know you’re gonna find/Just one mistake is not enough to change my mind/What’s now is now and I’ll forget what happened then/I know it all and we can still begin again”. The song is all about him forgiving her for her adultery – and assuming that the reason she’s left is just because she thinks he won’t forgive her, or that she thinks the people around will disapprove. He thinks she’s *run away from him*, rather than having grown away from him. The turning point of the song: “Now that you know how much I understand/You have no reason to be gone”.He’s talking about how much he understands, how much he knows, but he doesn’t have a clue. The poor, poor man…
She Says… and he’s actually got a letter back from her. And she says she’s coming home! So why is the song all minor chords, and why do we have a creepy chorus of small children singing “so she says” at the end of each verse?
The Train And we’re back where we started. “And now the sun has broken through, it looks like it will stay/Just can’t have you coming home on such a rainy day”. “This time around you’ll want to stay/Cause I’ve had so many nights to find a way” “Pretty soon I’ll be close to you and it will be so good/We’ll talk about the part of you I never understood” Just like at the beginning, he’s waiting at the train station. This is where we came in.
Except… when we came in, it was the morning. And now “the kids are coming home from school”.
And “I wrote so many times and more/but the letters still are lying in my drawer”.
He’s been standing there in the rain all day, waiting for her, because of a reply he got to a letter he never sent…
the passengers for Allentown are gone
the train is slowly moving on
but I can’t see you any place
And I know for sure I’d recognise your face
And I know for sure I’d recognise your face…
And the album ends there, with the train pulling out in the fade.
And now, after having listened to that album three times during the writing of this, I’m going to have to dissolve into a quivering mass of sobs. Goodnight…