As an album… most Sinatra albums are, with the best will in the world, just collections of songs vaguely connected to a theme. Sometimes the theme works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the songs are good. Sometimes they aren’t. Watertown is one of the rare Sinatra albums intended to work as a whole rather than a series of parts.
As a story… Watertown is narrated by a man whose wife has left him, their children, and the small town they grew up in, to move to the city. Unsurprisingly, he is not taking it well. What makes the album interesting is the way he is not taking it well. He isn’t angry, just sad. He’s numb. The songs describe his days in spare prose that reveal more than he thinks. (Yeah, this is Sinatra’s ‘iceburg theory’ album.)
As a reflection on mortality… Sinatra was 54 when he recorded Watertown. His voice was somewhere between the magic of his youth and the nothing of his later years. Watertown, with its quiet portrayals of grief and longing, suited it perfectly. The sound of the album feels like (though I suspect it wasn’t) Sinatra accepting he needed to change the way he worked. Watertown is the closest he came to emulating the late career path of one his biggest influences, Billie Holiday, using the emotion in his voice to cover for the loss of power.
As a metaphor for Sinatra’s career… The 1960s had seen Sinatra pushed further and further from the centre of the cultural zeitgeist. Since The Beatles had first crossed the Atlantic, he had been on a slow walk to the exit. It’s not difficult to imagine Sinatra seeing a parallel between the wife leaving the narrator of Watertown for the bright lights of the big city and his own fans moving on, and away, in the previous decade.
As a historical document… Albums that disappear without trace are time capsules, windows in to the past. The set of circumstances that led to Watertown’s creation are not exactly universal but they do provide an insight into an industry rocked and confused by the late 60s. Watertown is clearly an attempt to reflect the contemporary music scene. Ultimately, it failed, but the failure is fascinating.
As a glorious accident… Watertown was the only album didn’t record live with an orchestra. A planned tv special to accompany the album release was scrapped early on. In some ways it is less Sinatra’s album than the writers’. His heart wasn’t in it. So how did it end up being his best album for a decade?
As a lost opportunity… Sales of Watertown were low, Really low. So there was no real chance that anyone would be able to persuade Sinatra to try something similar again. Maybe that’s a good thing – the uniqueness of Watertown is part of its charm, and if he had carried on in this vein we might never have got the incredible/preposterous third disk of 1980’s Trilogy – but you can’t help but wonder where he might have gone next.
As a vision of the future… Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Frank Sinatra? Ok, so I might be stretching the influence of this album on americana a bit, but… Crooning over a sorrowful country-ish sound, is that so very far away from what bands like Lambchop did twenty-odd years later?
As a conspiracy theorist… So, there’s a theory that the wife is really dead and the narrator is struggling to accept it. I don’t buy it myself, but the blog posts about it are well written and interesting, and as conspiracy theories go it’s a nicely harmless one.
As an album… Above everything else though, Watertown is just a really good record. The quietness of it makes it sadder and more heartfelt than most of Sinatra’s output. It sounds more personal (even if it wasn’t). Dare I say, ‘lost American classic’? Yes. Yes I dare.