Rum and croak
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 20 January 2020
Sinatra's last album proper before his temporary retirement in 1971 (the following "Sinatra and Company" is a mish-mash from various sessions) is a strange old thing. It's heavily flawed. The songs aren't particularly memorable, the sound quality is muddy and Sinatra's voice is on particularly poor form: he sounds old and tired, and has problems with pitching and even phrasing, which generally served him well even later into his career, when vocal issues became more and more evident. It sold badly on initial release and was pretty much the last of Sinatra's original albums to emerge on CD.
It's a concept album - the only true one in Sinatra's career. Others get that label flung at them, but they're actually collections of existing songs hung together around a loose theme - the moon, travel, feeling thoroughly miserable and enjoying every minute of it, and so on (even "Trilogy" largely falls into that category, loopy final disc notwithstanding). This is an actual Proper Sixties Concept Album - a set of songs written with the specific purpose of creating a narrative across two sides of 33 rpm vinyl. Somwhat surprisingly, the songs are written by Bob Gaudio of Four Seasons fame and Jake Holmes, who wrote "Dazed and Confused", now primarly associated with Led Zep. We're evidently some way from Burke and Van Heusen. For the most part, the songs aren't bad, but they don't really stick in the memory. The concept itself is the tale of a middle-aged man in a small town, left to raise the kids after his wife has departed for reasons never entirely made clear. Nothing much really happens except he strugges and fails to get over her.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its flaws, the album has something. The flaccid narrative, murky sound, forgettable songs and vocal problems weirdly combine to create and sustain a mood of extraordinary, confused, anxious melancholy. That Sinatra essentially sang as an actor, perfectly inhabiting whichever role the lyric suggested, is well-known. This is one of the best singer-as-actor performances of his career, and the undistinguished material actually helps with that, because you're not distracted from the whole thing by sudden snatches of brilliance. It's a slow burn, rather than a firework display, of an album, and if you're in the right mood it can be deeply moving. Sinatra really, really seems to be living the "narrator's" life.
The other things worth noting are the arrangements. The poor recording quality doesn't shine the best of lights on them, but for fans of late sixties orchestral pop, there's much to enjoy hear. Just the sound of this album takes me back to being eight, and it's an enjoyably bittersweet experience.
The albums's highlight is the closing track, "The Train", the only really memorable song here, but with it coming right at the end it doesn't disrupt the slightly intoxicated mood of sadness that carries through all the earlier chewns. "The Train" sees the narrator at the local station, hoping the incoming train is bringing his wife back to him. No spoilers, but you can probably guess what happens. "The Train" might be best appreciated on the recent Stanley/Wiggins compilation "State of the Union", where it shares space with a lot of older artists trying to deal with the social and musical changes of late sixites America, including Bing Crosby bemoaning the cost of the Apollo program. Wherever you find it, it feels like a lost classic, though it might be fair to say it's a classic which happens to have Sinatra on it rather than a Sinatra classic. Anyone who loves prime era Jimmy Webb or "Forever Changes" will love "The Train". As for the rest of the album, it's hardly peak Sinatra, but it's unique, and it has something special about it. It never comes close to the artistic accomplishments of, say, "Only The Lonely", but approach it carefully and it can feel more sincere, and more genuinely affecting, than even that berefit masterpiece. Just don't expect too much in way of catchy tunes.
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