Thursday, January 28, 2016

Album Review: Watertown by Frank Sinatra

I'm getting ahead of my 1970 self here--this record's not going to be released until March 1970--but I didn't want to risk my or the Internet's collapsing and wait any longer to say this about Frank Sintra's Watertown: Wow.

Wow. Wow. Wow.

This album is stunning.

On a variety of fronts, things reportedly weren't going so hot for 53-year-old Frank Sinatra when he was making his part of this record. And, reportedly, Watertown didn't exactly turn that frown upside-down. Wikipedia:

... it sold a mere 30,000 copies that year and reached a peak chart position of 101. He left Caesars Palace in September that year after an incident where executive Sanford Waterman pulled a gun on him. He performed several charity concerts with Count Basie at the Royal Festival Hall in London. On November 2, 1970, Sinatra recorded the last songs for Reprise Records before his self-imposed retirement, announced the following June at a concert in Hollywood to raise money for the Motion Picture and TV Relief Fund. He finished the concert with a "rousing" performance of "That's Life", and stated "Excuse me while I disappear" as he left the stage. He told LIFE journalist Thomas Thompson that "I've got things to do, like the first thing is not to do anything at all for eight months ... maybe a year ...

Well, out of this reported (and I keep using that word, because, really, who freaking knows?) valley in Frank Sinatra's amazing, riding-high-in-April/shot-down-in-May life emerged a simply terrific album. It's definitely a 5-star in my mind, but I didn't want to water down Matthew's work by using the "5-Star Review" label. I like everything about Watertown--the story, Jake Holmes's spartan poetry (John Henry came to cut the lawn/Again he asked me where you'd gone/Can't tell you all the times he's been told/But he's so old), the orchestra, the cover ... but blahblahblah ... come on ... it's Frank Sinatra, stupid. Of course, it's Frank Sinatra.


  1. Well, I finally own this record. I'm so damned cheap I watched eBay alerts for almost two years, waiting to get it for less than $9 (shipping included), which, thanks to Camelot, remains my high-water mark for paying for single albums.

    OK, look--sorry, Matthew--I'm adding the "5-Star Review" label to this post as soon as I'm done with this comment. This thing is phenomenal. There are a lot of reasons this is true, most of them I listed In the last paragraph of the root post here.

  2. But one thing I didn't know about before the actual, physical album was the inner-cover art.

    OH, MY WORD, LOOK AT THE WEBSITE LINKED UNDER THIS ALBUM! I haven't yet explored that site, but, clearly, that dude who put together that thing is way, way down the pike from where I am in discovery of Watertown.

    Anyway, back to the inner-cover art ... that collage of scrapbook/keepsake stuff against a braided rug ... that's as perfect as everything else about this record.

  3. Now the other thing that I wanted to say that as much as I loved the lyrics from just hearing Frank Sinatra's reading of them, it wasn't until just today that I really grasped them in whole, from beginning to end across the record.

    Side 1 is the more satisfying. "Watertown" sets the scene. "Goodbye" opens the action: her leaving. "For a While" defines the problem the action creates: his lingering. "Michael & Peter" surveys what is lost: their family and life together. "I Would Be In Love (Anyway)" closes the side with a real conclusion: blamesless suffering, wounded-healer triumph etc. It's a tidy, achingly real story expertly told.

    Side 2 is the inconvenient truth, too, though. Grief is non-linear, and it's the rare ones among us who do not give up on anything without gasping, grappling, doing absolutely anything we can to hold on--no matter how hard it is for anyone else to watch, no matter how unwise anyone else or even we ourselves think it is. "Elizabeth" and "What a Funny Girl" finds the protagonist allowing himself to fall back into love with the ghost his ex-lover no longer is. "What's Now Is Now" and "She Says" are painful-to-hear, nonsensical rationalizations of hope in a hopeless new start. "The Train" tugs--doesn't yank ... tugs--the scab off the old wound, and we listeners abandon and let the needle run out on our poor protagonist as he is bleeding anew on the Watertown-station platform.

  4. Jake Holmes just turned 78. I turn 50 this summer. I'm glad I bumped into him before it was too late for either one of us.