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Frank Sinatra’s “Watertown” Reviewed

Frank Sinatra’s 49th album starts as a move on the charts with the hugely popular Bob Gaudio, and ends an artistic triumph which, if it is no “In The Wee Small Hours” (here), isn’t the disaster it was imagined to be at the time. Let me start by cheating, here is a review of the 1970 Watertown by Tim Sommer of the Observer. A terrific review which, while I don’t entirely agree with Sommer, I admire tremendously. It is worth reading, and to keep in mind as I tackle Watertown – a town like the one in that Twilight Zone episode where a middle income white collar worker gets off for the freedom of suburbia. Only Watertown is the equivalent of romantic crib death.

Watertown is not the disaster it was considered when it was first released in, nor the classic it is now seen to be. The ten song story plus coda is Chekov small, claustrophobic detailing of a man who loses his wife to the big city and is left to raise his children alone. It plays out like a major tragedy and while the cynic might say get used to it, I am here to testify that being dropped by a woman you loved can almost kill ya. Certainly Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes, who composed the songs, capture the elusiveness of sorrow and Frank Sinatra gives a standard bearer vocal performance as good as anything but the best of his catalog. For once and only, Sinatra is singing to backing tracks and not live in the studio with the orchestra and it’s isolation on isolation. The first track introduces you to Watertown, New York, and the second song “Goodbye (She Quietly Says)” is the best song here and finds his wife leaving him and his two children, two songs later he is writing to Elizabeth, a chatty, painful later about the kids “Michael And Peter”. The album chokes you in the heartache till the final song (which was taken off the CD) where Frank briefly steps out of his persona to sing an ode to Billie Holiday on “Lady Day” which however briefly finds Gaudio and Holmes expressing the story from Elizabeth’s field of vision.

The songs, the songs, the songs. As moving as “I Would Be In Love (Anyway)” is so rendering, it has him raising his voice before dropping to a murmur, and it is moving but nothing you want to sing yourself. It is less a forward trajectory, more a chasing its own tail, topped by “The Train” that is meant to be bringing Elizabeth back to her family, and then she isn’t on the train, then add the coda which suggests something outside of the storyline, the ending that was dropped subsequently suggests Elizabeth missed the train because she killed herself… which really doesn’t fit too well.

So, you ask yourself, what now? If one of the writers is Bob Gaudio (who composed all those Four Seasons songs), surely the last piece of the puzzle, songs that are about more than parts, should be a given. It isn’t. The songs, brooding, off-Broadway, pop with mooted melodies and distraught movement, none of them stick: it is late 60s jazz ballads built for a long forgotten movie musical. Watertown has been compared to an adult In The Wee Small Hours, but where are the songs? Why has nothing here entered the Sinatra canon? As much as we admire Frank putting on the garments of a lonely, desperate working stiff as osmosis and a true personification of dread, great art, where are the songs to prove it? Where is Gaudio’s A game (the pop opera stymied him on the Four Seasons The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette). Sinatra gives these songs every last thing he has and even so, it is a desperate, unhappy, anti-melodic album… it makes you wish it was better.

Grade: B+

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