The album tells the tale of a man picking up the pieces after being left by his wife. He raises his two children, earns the sympathy of his neighbors, and quietly tries to win her back. The record ends with him waiting in the rain at a train station, the wife having gone back on her promise to return.
Frank Sinatra’s broken-heart concept album Watertown is one of only two albums that I’ve represented in their entirety on this blog. You can read my track-by-track analysis of the project here.
I wrote more about the lasting emotional power of Watertown in those 11 posts than I could hope to convey again here, so suffice it to say that the record may be the last transcendent moment Sinatra committed to tape and it works both for that reason and because it is a marvelous bit of theatrical storytelling.
Originally composers Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes included ‘Lady Day’ as an epilogue to the Watertown album, conceiving it as a tribute to the Elizabeth character. But somebody (perhaps Sinatra himself) decided it didn’t fit in with the rest of the album and left it off.
An excellent decision, if you ask me. While ‘Lady Day’ is a lovely song, it is completely different in tone and content than the rest of Watertown. It has none of the album’s narrative focus, none of its effective specificity.
How will the story end? With reconciliation or despair? Anybody familiar with Sinatra’s torch albums should know the answer.
‘The Train’ starts out positively buoyant, as the husband checks the weather, checks his watch, and prepares to meet his returning wife at the train station. He’s had “so many nights to find the way,” another clue that this break-up can’t be placed entirely on her shoulders.
The penultimate track, ‘She Says,’ uses an Ennio Morricone-esque call and answer technique and a creepy kids chorus to dramatize the wife’s decision to return home to her husband and children.
It’s dramatic, sure, but also more than a little silly. Even the bridge, the song’s most effective moment musically, blows it with the cliched lyric “the price is high, high as the sky.”
Can the same pair responsible for the rest of this gorgeous, subtle album possibly be behind this song? (The answer is yes.)
Of course, as we learned in When Harry Met Sally, infidelity is a symptom of something else in the marriage that’s wrong (to which Harry retorts, “Well, that symptom is fucking my wife”). In this case, those symptoms are left to our imagination, or hinted at in the margins of the songs preceding this one.
I’ve always wondered if the husband is learning about this affair for the first time after his wife has left, or if he knew about the affair prior to her leaving. The song builds, musically, with the force of revelation, but the question is whether that’s for our sake or his.
After opening with the gentle ‘Elizabeth,’ Part Two of Frank Sinatra’s Watertown moves on to the album’s most playful song. Again we are given a glimpse at the woman who is the cause of all this heartbreak, and this time it’s a very sympathetic portrait.
Of course none of the songs on Watertown are particularly upbeat and even this one, despite its amusing lyrics (“you’d fall for lines so easily… whatever they were selling, you’d buy three”) is tinged with sadness and regret.
The way Sinatra sings the single line that makes up the chorus — “What a funny girl you used to be” — captures the loneliness of a man whose happiest memories are a constant source of suffering.