There’s more to Frank Sinatra’s musical career than meets the eye. In 1970, he released Watertown, a concept album many consider to be his magnum opus. You read that correctly, Sinatra did a concept album. Unsurprisingly, it was a commercial failure, marking it as his only release not to break into Billboard’s top 100. Watertown is the one oddball record in Sinatra’s discography, an overlooked classic that has an entirely warranted cult following – nothing Sinatra released before or after compares.
After a cursory listen the narrative seems to be a simple love story that ended badly, one that traces the downward spiral of a failing marriage. Oh but it is so so much more. The narrator’s wife and two children leave him for the lure of big city life, and through his loss and heartbreak he gains a deeper understanding of himself and the world he lives in. His vocal performance is wonderfully imperfect, providing Watertown with refreshing emotional depth – something I don’t often associate with Sinatra. Cliched romanticism, sure. Overplayed heartbreak and simple lyricism, of course. But Watertown gives us a raw, human Sinatra separate from the prepackaged, commercial crooner out to make money rather than art.
By 1970 Sinatra’s time had long since passed, and he found himself forced to compete with new popular music genres. Watertown toys with elements of rock, but never fully embraces them. It’s no wonder after the album’s commercial failure, he ‘retired’ from music, before returning three years later.
It’s an album that will take many listens to really ‘get.’ After a dozen or so plays, I’m still discovering small pieces of the story I had missed. Watertown serves its purpose for me – it’s one of those albums that will pop up from time to time when heartbreak makes itself known in life. When I’m up in the wee small hours of the morning, mourning lost love, Watertown will surely be playing.