Frank Sinatra’s “In The Wee Small Hours” Reviewed
The thing about attempting to review Frank Sinatra’s ninth album, 1954’s In The Wee Small Hours, is that just about nothing you can write is more than a cliché. The first concept album, the mature Sinatra, the greatest Nelson Riddle arrangements, a jazz masterpiece, one of the greatest albums of the 1950s, one of the greatest albums of all times, the birth of the album as art form. All true, of course, but drive along music critic fans, there’s nothing be added here… .
It’s ironic that an album I was so eager to write about should prove just about impossible to write about. Early morning heart ache, break up and unrequited, that’s the story.
Glad To Be Unhappy
Deep In A Dream
I See Your Face Before Me
Can’t We Be Friends
Dancing On The Ceiling
In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning
I Get Along Without You Very Well
When Your Lover Has Gone
What Is This Thing Called Love?
Last Night When We Were Young
I’ll Be Around
It Never Entered My Mind
I’ll Never Be The Same
This Love Of Mine
So, this isn’t quite the “Ava songs,” Sinatra claims. The unrequited love songs tell a different story than those divorce ones. Ava was Frank’s third marriage, and during their time together Ava would have two abortions, both Ava and Frank committed adultery, and finally Ava bolted as she was known to when she had had enough, leaving Frank devastated. We all have one and that was his. You can see Ava in Frank’s minds eye all through the break up songs on In The Wee Small Hours. Sometimes, he sees her returning to him, sometimes he remembers the earliest days of their romance, but mostly he lies on a bed and cries. While the songs, except for the title track, were already well known, a song like Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” was a hit for Julie London, changing the singer from a woman to a man, especially a Frank Sinatra, singing it, was the definition of emasculation, yet here it was among 15 other songs completely emasculating.
Things were changing between the sexes. Start in the 1930s with 40% accuracy in DNA tests. What this meant was a huge revolution. During the Stone Age, men physically overpowered women, and with the birth of agriculture men handled the family business and the finances (bartering system if you prefer), while women dealt with the household. But at the bottom of the sexes for the next 5,000 years was that if women were promiscuous, men, who like women, are in the business of replicating DNA, could not prove paternity. This caused men to subjugate women in any way they possibly could and keep their boots on women’s necks; to force them physically into fidelity. Once DNA tests became more accurate, men could stop pushing so hard and that, much more than the pill, caused the sexual revolution. For women as women, WW2 and Rosie The Riveter taught American women that, you know those jobs only men can perform in factories? Well, women can do em just as well. Men returned from WW2 to find women disinterested in going back to family chores. Between the two it caused men to soften, weaken if you like, and In The Wee Small Hours’ masculine softness was the sound of a revolution not brewing but more or less brewed, though it would take a couple of generations to reach where we are (wherever that might be).
Sinatra took his relationship with an enormously strong woman and portrayed songs like a kaleidoscope of thwarted desire and instead of striking back, the way he might have in the 1840s, retreated into the depths of his mind, of his despair. Indeed, he took it even further. Breaking up with a love one, however painful, is one thing, unrequited love something else again. The difference is sex. Once you’ve fucked a girl, you’ve fucked her. Even if she has left you for another man, you have that knowledge. But unrequited love is rejection on an apocalyptic scale, all you can do is gasp at the pain. Sinatra sang of both, and was perfection at both, but a song like “Can’t We Be Friends” (written by the married couple Kay Swift and Paul James) hasn’t got the escape valve of memory that “Last Night When We Were Young” had. “Deep In A Dream” finds Sinatra shifting from a nightmare of real life to a drifting daydream of the girl. Only on “I’ll Be Around,” mostly because Sinatra is cuckolded, does he reach the unrequited love songs complete despondency:
I’ll be around,
No matter how
You treat me now
I’ll be around from now on.
Your latest love
Can never last,
And when its past,
I’ll be around when he’s gone
Otherwise, for all Sinatra’s pain on the break-up songs, there is some power to his position. It is the difference between memory and daydream, between knowing and guessing. A woman may reject you after sleeping with you but she can’t change the past. And while pre-DNA testing, the punishment for infidelity was, well, not pretty, by the 1950s it wasn’t the same at all. “I’ll Be Around” is “Take Good Care Of My Baby” with a difference, Bobby Vee is clearly guilty of something and Frank might not be.
For women, there is a sense of empowerment to these songs, women are always and constantly in control of the narrative here, they are not being acted upon but are acting on men. Sinatra dreams, cries, remembers, hopes, and women are ethereal and gone like the smoke from his cigarette. The mood is so indigo, so blue unless lost in a daydream, the women are lost parts of Sinatra’s imagination, he clings to them even as he loses them. I’ve read people claim some form of catharsis here but that’s just wishful thinking, it doesn’t exist, if “This Love Of Mine” is meant to offer hope it doesn’t offer anything of the sort, the love does goes on but the love is empty.
Sinatra’s great gift here is personifying male heartache, his singing is quite immaculate and if there are faults in his delivery I can’t hear them: he manages to be completely vulnerable at all times and yet not a wimp, his skill as a singer allows his feelings to break but never his voice, when he rises his voice it is anguish, when he lowers it back down it is sorrow, and his freedom to express weakness is the biggest breakthrough here. As the 1950s continued, Frank would follow heartache albums with ring-adding-dinger albums, and he was a master at both, but here there was a truth received through experience, through Ava Gardner and their divorce, that allows the greatest singer of the 20th century no escape from the pain and as he suffers he gives men permission to suffer as well, as the sexual dynamics began to shake.