The sweeping and romantic strings of the title track open this album, unsubtlety Sinatra from the off. A love song, surely? ‘In the wee small hours of the morning / That’s the time you miss her most of all’. A song of yearning, but not overtly a song for mourning. It sets the rest of the album up for an almost dreamscape effect, though I have to disagree with the idea that this is really a ‘concept’ album (Cullen, p. 98). A post for another day.
Described by Fulford-Jones (p. 22) as ‘perhaps the all-time greatest breakup album’, I personally don’t think the performances themselves are necessarily any more melancholy than Sinatra’s other recorded work. Throughout, Sinatra’s voice is as silky and rich as ever, and it really is very pleasant to listen to. The ballads from the shows are out in force here, and they bring with them the same stirring musicality you’d expect from a stage production. The lyrics and musical arrangement are where we get the delicate, blue moods from in this collection. This album feels, especially through the first listen, to be a performative sadness, more than anything else. If this is a breakup album, it is for people who have had more romantic breakups than I’ve had.
To all the people who don’t get red eyes when they cry, and order tea with marmalade on toast for breakfast rather than coffee and tears – this might be the breakup album for you.
For me, the standout tracks are the angrier ones. Found towards the end of the album, these are the ones where you can more easily imagine the jealousy that existed between him and his recently-separated wife, Ava Gardner (though they didn’t formally divorce until two years after the album was recorded). My notable mentions go to Can’t We Be Friends? and It Never Entered My Mind, where the denial and jealousy really shine through. Sinatra recorded the album between February and March 1955, and it’s easy to imagine him walking down a grey sidewalk, rain dripping down the brim of his hat, nursing the wounds of his separation. The more you know about Sinatra, the more sad this album feels.
In the Wee Small Hours definitely lacks the jaunty, joking edge present in almost all of his other albums. To me, Frank Sinatra means long car rides with my parents to visit relatives, dancing at their wedding, and a family holiday we took to Italy a decade ago. For our first visit to the country, it seemed obligatory to listen to Sinatra’s recording of We Open in Venice from ‘Kiss Me Kate’ (1948) on repeat. Frivolity, joy, and love are the things I associate with Sinatra’s voice. This album is completely bereft of the first two, but it’s full of a strong, proud, jealous love, especially towards the end.
- A good album if… you want something to get you through a breakup, that you can listen to over and over without sending you into an emotional downward spiral. An album that knocks at your heart gently, and will only hurt if you choose to let it in.
Cullen, J. 2001. Restless in the Promised Land. Sheed & Ward. Franklin, Wisconsin.
Dimrey, R. 2005. 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. 2013 Edition. Quintessence Editions Ltd. London.
Porter, C. 1948. We Open in Venice. Frank Sinatra, The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings, 1995.
Sinatra, F. 1955. In the Wee Small Hours. arr. Gilmore, V. Capitol Records.