#282: In the Wee Small Hours, Frank Sinatra
This album cover shows Frank Sinatra exactly how I picture him: skinny and moody and good-looking. He looks like a guy that made a business out of breaking women’s hearts, know what I mean? I mean, isn’t one of Mia Farrow’s sons “possibly” Frank Sinatra’s son? Damn, dude.
But in fact, Sinatra was actually not doing super awesome when he recorded this. He had just broken up with Ava Gardner and was starting to be and look older than 20, which was no good for the tweenage demographic that had been his bread and butter. So low was Ol’ Blue Eyes that he broke down crying after recording the song “When Your Lover Has Gone.”
But rather than letting the blues best him, Frank recorded a perfect album centered around love, loneliness, and wallowing in your own misery. This is widely considered to be the first concept album. I’m a big lover of concept albums, and I knew we would eventually find the first one, I just had no idea that it would come from Frank Sinatra’s chiseled skull.
As you might have guessed, these are all breakup songs. “Can’t We Be Friends?” features a dark, Spanish-style guitar under a lamentation of rejection, and “I Get Along Without You Very Well” is a pitiable, passive-aggressive confession. “I’ll Be Around,” “It Never Entered My Mind,” and the orchestral “I’ll Never Be The Same” are more of the same. Don’t be mistaken, Sinatra is performing the same song over and over again. But just look to one-note-wonders The Ramones to remind yourself why that isn’t such a bad thing.
The draw of Frank Sinatra is obviously his thrash metal guitar playing. Just kidding, it’s his voice. Title track “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” is enchanting. I always think of the crooners as having fine, angelic voices, but Sinatra’s voice is so full and thick with emotion, velvety smooth.
His voice is so lovely on songs like “What Is This Thing Called Love” and “This Love Of Mine” might trick you into thinking that there’s some reprieve, that they’re just straight love songs, but no. They’re not. All heartbreak, all the time.
That said, the concept of this album goes deeper than heartbreak — it’s about depression, angst, being stuck inside yourself. “Mood Indigo” is about being bluer than blue can be, and worrying that no one cares about you. He begs for better times in “Ill Wind” with the offering of a trumpet solo.
I’d go further and argue that he’s singing about disassociation. “Deep In A Dream” watches him fall asleep while smoking a cigarette, dreaming that the woman he loves is frolicking around him; “Glad To Be Unhappy” displays him taking it right on the chin and declaring that Unrequited love’s a bore, even though the guitar underneath him is anything but; “Dancing On The Ceiling” tricks you into thinking there’s a lyrical miracle happening, when the girl he envisions is really with another man.
Something I didn’t know: Frank Sinatra didn’t write any of these, and instead plucked them from the Great American Songbook. That’s a term that refers to popular “classic” US songs, which range from folk songs to Broadway ballads. Having encountered several artists who make use of this canon, like Patsy Cline, I feel kind of stupid for just learning it now.
Nowadays we might not take an artist like that seriously, but it didn’t matter back in 1955. I’m grateful that someone was able to preserve them all the way through 2022.
Finally, if you’ve ever been in love, I highly recommend you dance to Frank Sinatra, because it’s the most romantic thing that will ever happen to you.
Best Cover: “Last Night When We Were Young” is a great riff on Adele’s “When We Were Young.” (Just kidding.)
The Song I Danced To: “I See Your Face Before Me.” :)