Frank Sinatra never really warmed to the idea of doing a “pop” music record. He did try his hand at recording two Beatles’ songs to satisfy a younger audience but the idea of dedicating a full length album to material from the rock-music era was never under real consideration. Besides, by 1970, Sinatra was already 54 years old. Not exactly “elderly” by today’s standards but certainly well outside the youth market.
The Watertown album has been pitched to Sinatra as a new “concept” record acompanied with more contemporary instrumentation. Not so different then other “concept” records the singer had previously recorded. Albums like, In The Wee Small Hours and Only The Lonely, were “concept” albums in a sense. They may not have a linear story-line like, Watertown but they do have general ”themes”. More importantly, those records had taken Sinatra to the top of his artistic and commercial powers. So perhaps a full commitment to the Watertown project could return the middle-age singer to that lofty position on the charts. If successful, Watertown would cement Sinatra’s status for a new generation. In addition, Watertowns’ “heavy” topics and depressive/melancholy songs would appeal to music-critics and show the singer still making a serious artistic statement. Sessions for the record began in the summer of 1969 and continued through the fall. Unfortunately, the backing instrumental tracks were recorded in a New York studio and later given to Sinatra to provide the vocals. This was not the way the singer preferred to work. Sinatra had always felt that the interaction between the vocalist and musicians was a vital aspect to his art. The live collaboration allowed him the time to develop a stronger attachment to newer material. Once recording began, the singer was given very little time to find his own voice within the new songs. Adding to the dilemma, the lyrics for Watertown were espesially complicated and required a full understanding of the overall “concept” behind the individual songs. Immediately it seemed Watertown was off to a difficult start.
The central “concept” behind Watertown is that of a man who’s wife (& love) had recently abandon him. Leaving him alone in Watertown to raise their small children. But more than a time-line chronicling this sad emotional territory, Watertown is focused on a life after the initial loneliness and despair. What then? What is a man to do after the lose of romantic love in his life? Remaining proud and strong was never in question but what comes next? Sinatra presents us with the voice of a man broken yet unafraid of a deep pain that had always been his only real companion. Obviously, this is complex terrain to examines. And despite the many obstacles, Sinatra articulates those difficulties as if they were part of his own character. The singer managing the rare feat of taking the listener deeper within the story through his own troubled and struggling soul.
Unfortunately but almost predictably, when Watertown was release in 1970, the album was a embarrassing commercial letdown. And soon became known as the worse selling record of the singer’s career. A planned television special was quickly cancelled and the vocalist went into semi-retirement after the commercial failure. One industry report noted that Watertown may have sold as few as 35,000 copies upon its initial release. A significant embarrassment for a singer that had previously released some of the most popular albums of the past three decades. However, this is were the story gets interesting; despite the commercial woes, Watertown is a significant and important artistic statement. The material may have been very unusual and difficult to record. Taking the singer outside his comfort zone. But there is absolutely no denying that the Watertown sessions brought something very special out of the vocal performance. Sinatra demonstrating his unique ability to understand the desperation and solitude of a man abandoned within a life. The complexity of the story’s main character required Sinatra to build subtle layers of withheld emotions using only his voice. Articulating understanding and sympathy for the character with subtle inflections. Not an easy task for any vocalist. But Sinatra is able to find the authority for a unmatched performance on the Watertown album. In fact, the performance is so powerful that Watertown can be an uncomfortable listening experience. But also a worthwhile one.
Frank Sinatra would never come close to recording a real rock-album. But on Watertown, we hear elements of what such a project may have sounded like. Watertown incorporates electric guitars, keyboards and drums, that give the project a very different emotional range from other Sinatra records. The cold, strip-down instrumental music is actually an important asset. The music allowing the lyric and vocal performance to dominate the soundstage. Watertown is a strange and beautiful album that does not really fit easily within the rest of the singer’s discography. Frank Sinatra’s performance may not have been appreciated by fans in 1970. But Watertown has aged well; proof that the singer remained ready to experiment and keep his music alive and pushing forward.