Why, it seems like only yesterday [cue harp and wavy, out-of-focus visuals] when you could pore over an album's liner notes and not have to squint to garner an embarrassment of riches and a treasure trove of tidbits…
The adage that “you can’t tell a book by looking at its cover” may apply to record albums, too. The forced, sad-clown persona suggested by Frank Sinatra’s Only The Lonely (1958), is an off-putting depiction, even though it was a Grammy-winner for album design. It seems so unlike young Ol’ Blue Eyes, such big top bathos skewed for this arguably bleakest of Sinatra's Capitol Records' series of melancholic saloon song sessions.
But can you always tell an album from its liner notes? Even a lone yet telling tidbit culled from the Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen-written notations for Only The Lonely — that the album was originally going to be called "For Losers Only" — could support a case that this LP‘s commentary reflects its dreary, defeatist concept. “‘Scuse me while I disappear,” “Angel Eyes” ends, and we almost expect to see the singer slink off into thin air.
But to explore further, the liner notes for 1954’s superb In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning — an album whose cover is the hands-down winner in evoking a 3AM-of the soul sense of despair – points out that, when Sinatra sang, “he created the loneliest early-morning mood in the world.” It’s an insomnia-fueled heartbreak darkly conveyed even in the first sung notes of the lead-off title track. Was Sinatra's recent split with Ava Gardner too much on his mind?
Point Of No Return (1961), a collection of ballads resonant with “The bittersweet memory of tender moments to which there is just no return,” has “an extra ingredient that intensifies” the forlorn feeling: “For these songs all express,” the commentary reads, “the special longing that comes with the memory of a September not spent alone, or an April when someone did care. Every one of them is a revelation of a human being with a heart that beats, experiencing a sort of moment of truth…”
But for an expanded and more in-depth take on how Sinatra “sings ballads in a lonely mood,” we need to go beyond No One Cares’ straining-for-effect cover photo of a pensive Frank, in fedora and overcoat, drink in hand, by himself in a crowded bar. The liner notes of this 1959 album were penned by the prominent jazz and pop music critic Ralph J. Gleason, and perhaps it takes someone immersed in all-things-music to articulate the empathetic and natural style that complemented Sinatra‘s “gift for tempo” along with the “special magic of the timbre of his sound, the accent of his voice and the way in which it brings him personally across to the listener.”
Gleason further remarks upon Sinatra‘s “inspired phrasing and his ability to understand and communicate the lyric,” as well as, interestingly, the way he sings the verses to the song. “Verses never have the impact that the chorus has,” Gleason notes. “Yet, when Sinatra sings them, “they take on new life, set the stage for the mood and the message of the song.”
In an intriguing and pertinent facet to Gleason’s observations, he takes an historical and social perspective:
- For all our gaiety and our brass, this is a country with an element of sadness running through its soul. The Italians and the Irish, the Jews and yes, even the English, have a melancholy side to their nature and thus we have a great appetite for the song of unrequited love, the lament of love gone cold or hopeless. This underlying note of tragedy is imbedded in most American art, as it is in American life. It is one of the reasons Frank Sinatra can sing the sad songs in this album so well.
For, as Gleason continues, "those bittersweet, late night, sad songs of days that used to require an interpreter who can be sad without being maudlin, who can, in short, be man enough to cry a little and with the tears gain dignity.”
But damn that Ava Gardner, anyway. Hasn’t she done enough?