I've always thought that Frank Sinatra's 'saloon song' albums at Capitol followed a deliberate progression in terms of mood and theme. While all of them are about ostensibly the same things - heartache and loss, each has a distinct vibe, a different stage of grief, if you will. "In The Wee Small Hours" is quiet and resigned, a man alone in his apartment overcome by the initial shock of a lover's departure. "Only The Lonely" is him in a bar at 3 a.m., after having failed to find any resolution to his grief. "No One Cares" is a suicide note, deeply sad and devoid of any hope.
"Where Are You?," the second of the four (five if you want to count "Point Of No Return"), is my favorite of these albums, and on a good day, it's my favorite Frank record overall. Between a stellar song selection, Frank in excellent voice, and the lush, haunting string arrangements of Gordon Jenkins, it has an atmosphere and an edge that I really love that keeps me coming back to it more than almost any other album.
In terms of the progression I spoke of, "Where Are You?" is this man attempting to make sense of what happened and vainly attempting to move on by interacting with the outside world, ultimately to no avail. This album chronicles the events that lead him to that bar at 3 a.m. The crux of this is formed by the three song stretch of "The Night We Called It A Day," "I Cover The Waterfront," and "Maybe You'll Be There," all of which depend on settings and events to tell their stories. "The Night We Called It A Day" vividly recalls the natural landscape the night his gal left him:
"There was a moon out in space
But a cloud drifted over it's face
You kissed me and went on your way
The night we called it a day."
Then, on "I Cover The Waterfront," our forlorn hero sets out to one of the inherently lonely, desolate landscapes there is in the natural word: a dark waterfront promenade at the nighttime. Jenkins' arrangement on this is so vividly dark and murky you can almost see the light from a distant ship cut through the pitch black sky. Finally, on "Maybe You'll Be There," the singer finally emerges amongst the rest of the living, but can't help but wander if in the everyday hustle and bustle, his love out there waiting to return. It's a very strong, tight arc, moved along by Frank's fluid, emotional phrasing and trademark conviction, making you believe every word.
"Laura," an often covered classic, is simply eerie, with spectral strings and a devastating vocal that makes an already sad song become even darker as the shadow of death that's merely hiding in the lyrics becomes all too panoramic here.
Leonard Bernstein's classic "Lonely Town" is the album's peak. Frank always loved this song, and was famously annoyed when it was cut of the film version of "On The Town," which he starred in in 1949. Finally getting the chance to record it here, he does not waste the opportunity. Frank takes his time with each word, using his vibrato to illustrate the despair of the lyrics as effectively as possible. It's one of his best vocals, and Jenkins' towering arrangement is perhaps his best.
"Autumn Leaves" is another perhaps too often heard standard, but like "Laura," Frank makes it his own. Like "Lonely Town," Frank's subtle use of vibrato is key here, bringing out just the right sense of longing and ache. Frank's own "I'm A Fool to Want You," a song he co-wrote and first cut in 1951, is even more haunting, with its hair raising string and a vocal that's at once playful, sad and angry. Coming on the heels of the finalization of his divorce from Ava Gardner, it's easy to see why Frank was able to throw so much of himself into this track. He sings it like he's praying for strength but knows he won't get it. Truly powerful stuff.
"I Think Of You" is another ballad that has a very ghostly, haunted sound to it, not least of all because of Frank's voice, which has some subtle echo put on it to give it the proper effect. In terms of dynamics, this is one of Frank's most taut vocals, as the way his voice rises and falls is quite harrowing throughout; it's almost like a spirit moving through a haunted house.
"Where Is The One?" is a bit too on the nose lyrically compared to the more vivid, cinematic style the other songs are written in, but Frank makes up for its shortcomings with another solid vocal performance. Still, it's the album's weak link.
"There's No You" is the perfect song to end the album on. Circling back to the progression I talked about, the song is the perfect setup for the smoky, alcohol and tear soaked backdrop of "Only The Lonely." There's a twinge of hope midway through, but it's quickly muted by a haunting instrumental break that seems to try to aurally emulate the 'stormy clouds' Frank sings off in the lyric that obscure what little hope he has left. I haven't spoken enough of Jenkins' work throughout the album, but the way he constructs the dynamics between the strings and horns is very effective in giving the album its atmosphere.
"Where Are You?" does not get the praise that "In The Wee Small Hours" or "Only The Lonely" routinely seem to get, which is a shame. It has the mere misfortune of coming out during a time where Frank was quickly outdoing himself from one album to the next, to the point where there may not have been time to accurately assess each one's merits at the time. Over 60 years later, "Where Are You?" clearly stands among Frank's very best, capturing him at his most focused and passionate, with his focus, passion and maturity on full display.