After a quarter century in exile, the most unconventional album of Frank Sinatra's career has finally been freed. Watertown
is back. Though its commercial success has been elusive, over the years it has garnered a serious cult following among dedicated connoisseurs of popular American music. Watertown
might appear to be a simple story of love gone awry, but a careful listening reveals it is much more than it appears on the surface.
To be fair, Watertown
is not an easy album to love. It has an austerity and a bleakness that cuts right to the bone. At the time of its recording, Sinatra was certainly no stranger to musical works of heartbreak and sadness, but there had always been a strong romantic motif in his previous efforts.
, he found, courtesy of writers Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes, a marvelously stylized piece with profound subtext, nuance and color. It truly was a work ahead of its time – one that depicted the beginning of the disintegration of the traditional nuclear family without so much as blinking. In short, Watertown
was a harbinger of the post-romantic movement in popular song.
In a series of soliloquies, the nameless narrator tells us his heartbreaking story of personal loss and unrealized redemption. His wife has left him and their two boys for the lure of the big city, and her absence hangs palpably in the air. While it is altogether understandable why someone would flee the stark and dreary landscape of Watertown, our empathy rests with the eloquent everyman left behind. He is a desperate man, the personification of all that is pedestrian in a small town, a solitary figure who suffers unbearable torment and despair. But, in expressing timeless sentiments to a love that is hopelessly lost, he finds salvation in the written word and an extraordinary transformation takes place. In his grief, he achieves a deeper understanding of himself, and a transcendent awareness of what he has lost and why. There is a terrible beauty in all of this.
Sinatra, whose performance is simply stunning, makes mincemeat of the stark, sparse poetry of Watertown
. You will never hear him sound more vulnerable or alone, especially on such songs as "Michael & Peter," the album's tour de force. In it, a man is writing what seems to be an ordinary letter. But his emotions are out of control, teetering on the edge of hysteria. It is a tightrope that Sinatra walks with a vocal prowess the likes of which will not be heard again. Throughout this album, his interpretations possess an ineffable rightness
To lend further cachet to the rebirth of this lost treasure, you will hear for the first time a small miracle of a song called "Lady Day." A coda that puts a definitive period at the end of the story. It was deleted from the original album. Sinatra would later rerecord it with slightly altered words, a new arrangement and a vastly different vocal interpretation.
is of more relevance today because the dramatic transfiguration of the American scene has made it so. What was once an anomalous event is now and everyday occurrence.
A closing caveat: Watertown
is not for the casual listener. It is an album that demands your undivided attention. After playing it many times, you will discover it is what you don't hear that is most important.
– Ed O'Brien
Special thanks to Bob Gaudio, Jake Holmes, Al Viola and Jim Cochran.