[Monday Notes n.170] In the Wee Small Hours is a 1955 Frank Sinatra album, with arrangements by Nelson Riddle. This work anticipates the concept albums of the 1960s and 1970s. It is in fact not a simple collection of songs, but a coherent and well-structured work, dealing with themes such as the end of a love affair, loneliness and alienation.
What a concept album is
In the 1950s, the idea of the music album as a complete and coherent work did not yet exist. In fact, until the end of the 1940s, music was recorded on 78 rpm records, which had a very limited duration of about 3 minutes per side.
The introduction of ‘long playing’ was initially only exploited for their longer duration, which allowed a number of songs to be included within the same record. The album In the Wee Small Hours was one of the first to propose a complete and coherent conceptual path, where each song contributes to the overall discourse.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many records had this ambition, some famous concept albums being Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles (1967), In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson (1969), The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (1973).
The main theme of In the Wee Small Hours is the end of a love affair. The recording of the album followed the break-up of Frank Sinatra’s relationship with Ava Gardner, so there is a close relationship between the singer’s biographical events and his choice to perform on such an album.
In the Wee Small Hours, a concept album about abandonment, loneliness and estrangement
In addition to the main motif, there are other recurring themes throughout the album: the night, daydreaming, spring as the season of love and therefore a source of pain and regret. Trying to follow the thread that links one song to the next, here is the musical and sentimental journey of In the Wee Small Hours.
In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning
The album’s opening track, the protagonist is lying in bed in the early hours of the morning, unable to sleep. If only she would call, he would give himself to his beloved without hesitation. The short lyrics of the song suggest that he has behaved differently in the past, having perhaps been incapable of fulfilling their love, and was therefore responsible for the abandonment. The main theme of the song is regret.
The song is a Duke Ellington classic, the album in fact contains songs by the greatest American songwriters, as if to pay homage to them. The lyrics of this song have a strong blues character, speaking of abandonment and loneliness, but with a certain lightness.
The blues is always somewhat ironic and ambivalent, in the context of this album the song seems to want to express that moment of suspension that exists when a love affair ends, but the pain has not yet manifested itself in all its excruciating power.
Glad to Be Unhappy
Delightful song by the celebrated American songwriting duo Rodgers & Hart. The song expresses the narcissism of abandonment, a form of melancholy that does not reach the depths of despair, but is almost consolatory.
Glad to Be Unhappy thus connects perfectly with the quasi-blues Mood Indigo that precedes it, and suggests that the protagonist of this love story has not yet suffered the blow of abandonment, or is underestimating its extent.
I Get Along Without You Very Well
A composition by another great composer, Hoagy Carmichael, and the fourth composition on the album. In this piece we begin to feel a poignant sadness. The theme of the piece is denial; the protagonist ideally speaks to his beloved and tells her that he is very well without her, a lie intended to deceive himself in the first place.
Deep In A Dream
A song by Jimmy Van Heusen, author of some of the most beautiful ballads in the American repertoire. In this song, the theme of daydreaming is introduced, which in this case leads to actual sleep. The object of the dream is obviously the beloved, whose absence begins to become painful, more so than the cigarette flame with which our unfortunate burns himself, waking up abruptly.
I See Your Face Before Me
This piece links up with the previous one and continues on the theme of dreaming, which is becoming a real obsession. No matter whether our lover’s eyes are open or closed, the face of his beloved is always there in front of him, haunting him.
Can’t We Be Friends?
This song lightens a little the tension that was building in the two previous tracks, the lyrics are in fact more ironic and the music picks up a certain blues vein, albeit a delicate one.
It is a typical bar song, one in which the protagonist tells his sad story, perhaps to a bored barman. The theme of the song ‘we can be friends‘ is not unusual, it is the same as Just Friends, a song often performed by Chet Baker.
When Your Lover Has Gone
This poignant ballad begins to set up the climax of the entire album. The theme of the song is one of deep disappointment, for all the plans and dreams made at the beginning of the love affair that later turned out to be completely unfounded. Now nothing matters anymore, not only the naive plans made in the past, but also the stars, the moon, sunrises and sunsets have lost all their meaning.
The lyrics of the song often repeat ‘When you are alone’, and the loneliness begins to make itself felt, painful. This is how the first side of the LP In the Wee Small Hours closes.
What Is This Thing Called Love?
The B-side of the disc opens with a song by Cole Porter, another great American songwriter, who, by the way, wrote both the music and the lyrics of his own songs, which is quite unusual.
The song is an invective, the author wonders what this strange thing called love is and why it makes fun of him. Although the song’s lyrics are not particularly dramatic, Frank Sinatra is able to express great melancholy, setting the stage for the album’s highest point of tension in the next song.
Last Night When We Were Young
Song by Harold Arlen, a great composer best known for the soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz. In this piece we can feel the deep despair that now pervades the protagonist of this story.
The end of love has taken his whole life away, it seems an eternity ago, although perhaps everything happened only last night. The song is ambivalent, it also expresses an awareness of the inexorable passing of time. This adds further tension and pain, suggesting that life is now over, only a sad winter remains to be lived.
I’ll Be Around
After having hit the bottom of despair, a timid ascent begins with this song. In fact, the song expresses hope. The protagonist turns to his beloved, and tells her that no matter how much she may mistreat him and fall in love with other men, he will wait for her and be ready for her when the time comes.
Again a song by Harold Arlen, it is the second song that expresses the will to rise again. The protagonist addresses the ‘evil wind’ that plagues him, and urges him to leave. The song thus expresses a kind of rebellion against pain, a desire not to give up and to return to life.
It Never Entered My Mind
On his way back to life, the protagonist remembers the criticism his beloved addressed to him and regrets not having listened to her. This song thus expresses a moment of realisation, and also regrets the mistakes made. However, the song expresses a certain optimism, learning from one’s mistakes and coming to terms with the past is indeed an indispensable moment in any growth path.
Dancing On The Ceiling
In this song, the theme of reverie returns, in the daydreams of our lover, his beauty returns every night, dancing on the ceiling above his bed. Evidently, the beloved has not returned, but the pain has partly subsided and the joy of the memory remains. Despite the pain experienced, it almost seems as if loving, even if not reciprocated, is enough to give life meaning.
I’ll Never Be The Same
The penultimate song on the album, this song precedes the final farewell. The dreaded spring has returned, the birds are singing again, but the protagonist confides that he can never go back to his old self because his heart is still full of pain.
He has returned to life, he has learnt to hide his sorrows behind a smile, but it is only an appearance. The theme of this song is therefore a poignant melancholy.
This Love Of Mine
The closing song of In the Wee Small Hours is signed by Frank Sinatra himself, who composed the words. The protagonist addresses his beloved one last time, with a tender confession.
His heart has learned to move on, but life without her is empty and meaningless. His heart cries every night, always on the verge of breaking, but his love for her is destined to continue. In fact, the song ends by repeating ‘this love of mine goes on and on’.
The music of In the Wee Small Hours
In the Wee Small Hours was made with excellent arrangements by Nelson Riddle, one of Frank Sinatra’s main collaborators on the albums released on the Columbia record label. Nelson Riddle’s writing for this album relies mainly on the orchestra, with the ever-present strings to envelop Frank Sinatra’s warm baritone timbre.
The orchestra is tailored around the soloist, the album is completely devoid of improvisation and big band-style parts. The instruments are always subordinate to the vocals, which helps to keep the story always at the centre.
The exceptional skill of the orchestra musicians and conductor Nelson Riddle is particularly evident in the numerous passages that Frank Sinatra performs freely, without tempo. It is normal for a singer to perform without tempo the verse of American standards, i.e. the introductory part that normally precedes the chorus, or refrain.
However, these parts are often only performed with piano accompaniment. It is therefore up to the pianist to listen to the singer and follow him, in his pauses and rubato. To realise this dialogue with an entire orchestra is something truly extraordinary and very difficult.
Nelson Riddle’s orchestra, under his masterful direction, performs these passages with extreme naturalness, creating a sumptuous, never intrusive accompaniment for Sinatra’s voice. The beauty of this setting enhances the depth of the singing, Sinatra identifies with each song, and we are drawn into the story.
In the Wee Small Hours is a sad album, because it speaks of ended love, loneliness, estrangement, pain. Yet, the beauty of this music is such that it is impossible to be saddened by it, so the album has a consoling, and at times almost uplifting, effect.
In the Wee Small Hours is a masterpiece that succeeds in something extraordinary: turning sadness into sublime music, and thus into zest for life. With just a hint of nostalgia and melancholy. Because, between you and me, who hasn’t felt some of these emotions, at least once?