Flash back to the early 1970s and reimagine the hot musical trend of the day: The Concept Album. I remember them fondly: Olias of Sunhillow by Jon Anderson, anything by Pink Floyd, and the biggest of them all, The Who’s Tommy. But while we were all tripping out on sunshine and every color of the rainbow, the vocal giant of the 1950s and 1960s was hoping to catch that musical crazy train. Frank Sinatra set out to jump into the 1970s with both feet and release his own concept album, Watertown. It’s the tragic story we all know and love from musical theater and countless sappy Hallmark “Made for TV” weepies, but chances are good you’ve never heard it or heard of it. Watertown was one of his biggest flops.
So how did Old Blue Eyes do on this album? Musically, it’s wonderful, but commercially, this album went straight to the cut-out bins. The vocals are Sinatra at his best, but the material leaves a lot to be desired. Nothing here stretches his skills, and there’s no hit to grab onto. The story line is sad – it’s about a man losing his woman – but there’s no solid musical theme to hum afterwards. It never stretches his vocal cords, but instead we hear a rather reserved and pensive vocalization. The story is sad and the songs mopey at best. She takes the kids to the city for what one presumes is a better deal; Frank is left alone to reminisce and sing about what might have been.
The music is as well-built as you would expect, but while individual tracks are well constructed, the overall blueprint is flat. “What A Funny Girl” sounds good but somehow misses what we expect in an Old Blue Eyes tune. “Lady Day” has the same dissonance. It’s a fine tune, but somehow doesn’t fit Sinatra. The backing tracks are orchestra smooth, and I can see the conductor in his tuxedo, for what that is worth. The collection wraps up with an homage to the missing woman, and Sinatra wallows in his own feelings but with no facts or supporting words from outside.
With fifty years of hard road behind us, this collection has a pleasant retro charm. Sinatra was still near the top of his vocal skills, although his star had faded a bit and he was making his living working casinos. Nothing wrong with that. His core audience loved it, and he appeared be equally in love with the gig. It’s just that he was no longer the center of American pop music – that had slipped to the new horror of rock and roll. But there is merit in this project: the music is wonderful, the lyrics engaging if dated, and the story timeless. If you’re re-enacting The Rat Pack lifestyle down in your rec room, this should be in your collection. I may make myself another Four Roses highball and spin this a second time.