When Frank Sinatra signed to Capitol Records in 1953, he launched an artistic hot streak to which the only serious comparison in popular music since has been the Beatles’ career between 1963 and their dissolution in 1970. For the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s, Sinatra alternately released collections of uptempo swing numbers and increasingly punishing albums of ballads, never mixing the two on the same LP. In so doing Sinatra, along with his producer Voyle Gilmore, arguably invented the concept album.
Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely may be the pick of these records, but it is also the bleakest. Sinatra had gone through a divorce from Ava Gardner, and arranger Nelson Riddle (a late substitute for the singer’s preferred choice of Gordon Jenkins) had just lost his mother and his daughter. The album Sinatra and Riddle made together in these unhappy times goes far beyond melancholy, achieving instead an eerie, exhilarating desolation.
The album was, as was Capitol custom at the time, recorded using two separate set-ups running simultaneously: eight orchestra mics for the mono recording and a three-mic ‘Decca Tree’ configuration for the stereo. There are audiophiles who claim the mono sounds better. To my ears, the stereo mix is musically superior because the lack of competition for aural real estate in the centre of the stereo picture gives Sinatra and his voice a bigger area to wander around disconsolately in, so to speak. As gorgeous as the orchestration is, nothing pulls you away from Sinatra’s performances. And what magnificent performances they are. Sinatra inhabits every line of the song, he explores every nuance of the lyrics, pulling the beat this way and that as he goes.
Riddle’s arrangements, meanwhile, with the dimensionality and wider soundstage afforded by stereo, range from enveloping warmth to disconcerting coldness (witness the uneasy-sounding ‘suicide’ strings that open the track, and their insinuating, spiralling recurrence at 2.08: they could have come straight from a Scott Walker record, or from a horror-movie score).
Sinatra’s phrasing was always at its most inimitable and deeply felt on ballads, particularly in the fifties, and he’s at the very top of his game on It’s a Lonesome Old Town. Notice how frequently he’s slightly in front of the beat, as if these painful admissions are coming out in little spurts he can’t quite control. This is not the ‘Fly me to… the moon’ Sinatra of a thousand tin-eared parodies. This is an artist of supreme technical facility letting go of all his little tricks and just singing the songs as he feels them.
Too unrelentingly dark to win the mass acceptance afforded to his swing albums, these records remain comparatively under-appreciated. Cuts such It’s a Lonesome Old Town are seldom played on the radio and often go unrepresented on compilations and retrospectives; the comparatively cutesy One for My Baby (cutesy being of course a relative term in this context) is the only song from Only the Lonely I’ve ever heard on daytime radio. But perhaps this is appropriate – no other records are as suited to late-night solo listening as Sinatra’s ballads albums. Small doses, though. They’re strong stuff
He’s Frank Sinatra and you’re not.