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When Watertown first came out in 1970, Frank Sinatra fans didn’t know what to make of it – which, in retrospect, seems odd. Produced by Charlie Callelo and composed by Four Seasons songwriter Bob Gaudio and original “Dazed and Confused” author Jake Holmes, the record tells the story of a man whose wife leaves him, and his attempt to live with the pain. Already a pioneer of sorts of the concept album, Sinatra had traveled similar roads before, if not quite as narratively focused as this, so the direction here was hardly a surprise. Perhaps it’s the sound of the record that threw people off. There’s nothing like big band jazz here, and no grand sweeping orchestral statements. Closer, in some ways, to the ork-pop of Brian Wilson or the more obscure but equally eccentric David Ackles, the tracks shimmer with a glow that enhances the downcast lyrics – the strings and horns create more subtle backdrops, with the arrangement often centered around piano.
Not having to master an orchestra with his commanding voice, Sinatra pulls from a deep well of emotion for these songs, inhabiting the character (and it is a character, not the singer in disguise), dissecting his loneliness, confusion and depression. Interestingly, given that Watertown came out right at the beginning of the rise of the singer/songwriter, there’s not as much introspection here as one might think. Songs like “Elizabeth” and “What’s Now is Now” convey the narrator’s feelings through his observations and dialog rather than overt statements, avoiding self pity and pretty much wiping sentimentality from the table. “As far as anyone can tell/The sun will rise tomorrow,” Sinatra sings calmly on “Michael and Peter,” and any single parent battling the desire to despair with the determination to keep one’s shit together for the sake of the kids can relate. Even “The Train,” on which our desperately hopeful protagonist finds the rug unceremoniously yanked from beneath his feet, avoids the bathetic melodrama lesser singers or producers might give it. There’s no happy ending here, no new or returned love as with the musicals Sinatra performed so many times – just a broken man facing an uncertain future in all of its mundanity. (Gee, maybe that’s why the record didn’t find immediate favor with audiences primed for a sequel to “My Way.”) Regardless of the reason, critical and popular opinion rightly shifted over the decades, making this reissue the return of a lost classic.
CD and digital versions contain alternate takes on some of the songs, as well as a pair of brief radio ads for the album. But multiple versions of “Lady Day,” a fine song that finally speaks for the ex-wife (or Billie Holiday – take your pick), are what make those copies mandatory. While emotionally connected to the rest of the album, the song’s different POV makes it understandable why it wasn’t included the first time around. Treat it as a coda, however, and it ties off the story the way a great song during the credits of a film compliments what came before it.
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