The most famous of Frank Sinatra’s pioneering Concept Albums all come from his Capitol and Reprise years, but he did make a few during his early tenure at Columbia records. The two that get the most attention are The Voice of Frank Sinatra (arguably the first Pop album ever to have a truly unified sound) and Swing and Dance with Frank Sinatra (his first Swing album and the one that first showed the world he was capable of more than just ballads), but I think this one deserves some attention as well. It has never been released on CD in its original form (for this review, I had to recreate it from tracks on the Complete Columbia Recordings box set), but I’d argue that in its own way, it was just as influential at the time as the aforementioned other two releases.
This album has a particularly clear concept even by Sinatra standards…all but one of the tracks consist of love songs addressed directly to the listener. This had been done before in songs, of course, including some that Sinatra had already recorded, but never in such a focused and deliberate manner. In this fundamental innovation, the album may well have set the stage for virtually all subsequent Teen Pop (take a look at how many boy-band ballads in later years would be addressed to a non-specific “you”). The production now sounds dated as all Hell, with its florid backing choirs, but Sinatra’s actual singing, which is obviously the main attraction, is still as electrifying now as it was when this album was released. Imagine all the erotic vocal tone of a David Bowie, combined with the passion and sensitivity of the greatest romantic actors, and you may have some idea of what an effect this album has.
The first two cuts on the album are slightly more obscure than the rest of the material. The opening track, “The Music Stopped”, is in particular a lovely and lyrical gem that deserves to be better known. The flowing melody and exquisitely poetic lyrics, combined with Sinatra’s hushed and tender performance on the song, get this album off to a quietly stunning start.
The second track, “The Moon Was Yellow (And the Night Was Young)”, would be rerecorded over a decade later for the Moonlight Sinatra album on the Reprise label. But the version of the song on that album is more delicate and atmospheric, whereas this version is hungrier and more intense, emphasizing the romantic and erotic elements of the song far more than the later version…as you’d expect on an album with this concept.
Two of the songs are drawn from Wright and Forrest’s pasticcio Operetta based on the music of Edvard Grieg, Song of Norway. “I Love You” is the one song in the score with music taken absolutely verbatim from Grieg’s original; it is essentially a translation of the extremely famous love song Grieg wrote for his wife to sing. Sinatra throws himself particularly passionately into this one, offering one of the most convincing declarations of love ever heard in Pop music…and aimed, like the rest of this album, directly at the listener. The other Song of Norway tune, “Strange Music”, was supposedly drawn from Grieg, but in such a contrived way that it is essentially an original Wright and Forrest composition. It is one of the most rhapsodic Operetta ballads out there, and Sinatra’s ringing, ecstatic performance enhances that effect into a nigh-overwhelming romantic sweep.
“Where or When”, from Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms, is delivered in a more low-key manner here, with a quiet, melting tenderness that makes a nice contrast to the intensity of the previous tracks. Sinatra sounds relaxed and at ease here, like he’s actually having a sweetly sensitive conversation with you, and the effect is perhaps the most irresistibly charming of any song on this record.
The album’s one flaw is the inclusion of “None But the Lonely Heart”. It’s a lovely song, with a melody taken from an art song by Tchaikovsky, but it doesn’t really fit into the album’s concept…the word “you” never even appears in the lyrics. On top of that, at the point in his career at which this album was recorded, Sinatra hadn’t really figured out the art of the torch song yet. Of course, he would later become the undisputed king of that song model…indeed, he would make an infinitely more moving recording of this very song for the darkest and most despairing of his torch albums, No One Cares. But during his RCA and Columbia years, while he was phenomenal when it came to caressing love songs, he couldn’t yet capture the real depth of sorrow found in his later work. The consensus among those who knew him seems to be that his split with Ava Gardner in 1954 was his first experience with real heartbreak, and that it taught him how to project real romantic despair because he could now draw on personal experience (it is worth noting that his first truly great album of torch songs, In the Wee Small Hours, came out in 1955). Unfortunately, his performance here, while certainly beautifully sung, is uncomfortably insincere, even phony, and stands as the album’s only real sour note.
On “Always”, Sinatra doesn’t really make much attempt to ‘act’ the song, letting his lush vocals and the song’s legendary Irving Berlin melody carry the track. It isn’t the most compelling cut on the album, but it’s so gorgeous as pure music that it still holds its own. The album closer, “Why Was I Born?”, is traditionally delivered as a torch song, but Sinatra’s honeyed vocals turn it into more of a piece of shameless flattery. The attempt at manipulation is far less subtle than on the rest of the album, but it’s still exceptionally sweet, and given Sinatra’s aforementioned trouble with torch songs at this point in his career, this was probably the wisest strategy to take for this song.
I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to be a hormonal teenage girl in 1950 and be exposed to this album, but I’m genuinely surprised there are no reports of any of them literally bursting into flames. In any case, if any of you have ever wondered how the stereotype of the bobbysoxer swooning at the very sound of Frankie Sinatra’s voice came into existence…this is how.