Sunday, August 21, 2016

In the Wee Small Hours - Sinatra 60 years ago

Ten years before Revolver we wanted to be just like him: the dolls, the highballs, Vegas, the big-shot friends and tough-guy attitude. We'd finger-pop to Songs for Swingin' Lovers, and we'd act like a million copy-cat lounge singers, cheesy imitators of Ol' Blue Eyes. In 1955, the release of In the Wee Small Hours caught us by surprise and captivated us on the Billboard charts throughout 1956. These weren't songs about getting a kick out of you (ooh, you give me a boot), or wingin' down to llama-land. These weren't chestnuts in blossom, or the roaring traffic's boom. These were songs about hurt and loss. We knew about Ava Gardner, and the children, and the loving wife who'd been left behind, and how eleven months later his whole world fell apart; these songs told that story - not so much in the lyrics, or in Nelson Riddle's wisely understated orchestration, but in the tenor to his voice, the pause, the restraint, the catch, the waver. In the Wee Small Hours was the turning point when we didn't want to be like him any more; we realized instead that he was just like us (only cooler). Go ahead, listen to the sparse opening notes of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," and know that Frank wasn't just an icon, he was a man, flesh and blood like you and me. And once we'd made this discovery, Sinatra's incredible connection to us - unlike that of any other performer in our generation or any other - was complete.

On the iconic cover (a copy of which hangs in my hallway alongside Come Fly With Me), Sinatra stands on the corner of a foggy, lamp lit street in a crumpled suit, sleepy, dazed even, his attempts to come to terms with what's just happened as elusive as the cigarette smoke disappearing into the mist. In the Wee Small Hours is arguably Sinatra's greatest 'heartbreak' album, but one more reflective than Only the Lonely, which seems to crack up with the trauma of loss. Hours is an album of loss with the luxury of time passed - it's a nocturnal album, a restless, can't-get-to-sleep album, one defined by solitude and haunted by memories, dreams and delusions. In "When Your Lover Has Gone," tense strings fill up the absence of the lover; the restless clarinet of "What is This Thing Called Love," the heaviest and darkest of all Cole Porter interpretations, questions the unfathomable and unsolvable mysteries of love; "Last Night When We Were Young," a male counterpart to "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" broods with post-coital desolation, stumbling towards real breakdown.

Although the cover art proclaims Hours as an album of the blues, it’s a rarefied, turquoise blue: exquisite, arch even. There is often a sense on the album of Sinatra stepping outside of himself, catching himself in the act of being unhappy. "Mood Indigo" mocks Sinatra's pain with its over-literal instrumentation; the singer's bravado at being abandoned in "I Get Along Without You Very Well" is undermined by the music, especially the insistent solo violin, perhaps the you that refuses to be forgotten; the noir drama beginning "Can't We Be Friends," comically descends into mellow cafe jazz, as a relationship of dark sexual possibility cools into something blander; and the late-night, bar-room jazz of 'I'll be around' all suggest the drink-fueled delusiveness tacit in Sinatra's hopes and promises. In the Wee Small Hours is an endlessly subtle, adult masterpiece.