Frank Sinatra once said, no doubt in a way only Sinatra could, “Being a saloon singer, that’s my racket.” Classic Sinatra II — a 21-track companion to 2000’s double-platinum Classic Sinatra and every note as good — makes one helluva racket.
Much of the follow-up’s material comes from the lauded concept albums he released under Capitol Records in the 1950s, after the screaming-teens phase of his career dried up and both Columbia and MCA dropped him. Whereas Classic Sinatra is a twinkling celebration of the Great American Songbook — “Someone to Watch Over Me”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “My Funny Valentine”, “The Lady Is A Tramp”, “Come Fly With Me” — Sinatra II‘s saloonier songs explore the dark edges of his disposition and testify to the bipolar disorder (or, as Sinatra himself once put it, the “18-karat manic depression”) he battled throughout life. That the second CD is comparably delightful, witty and all-consuming is simply why he’s The Voice.
An interesting choice of opening number, “Something’s Gotta Give”, hints at the anguish and torment to come later in the collection. It also illustrates the talent and tightness of the studio orchestras that backed Frank up: Crescendoing and decrescendoing with glistening panache, swooshing across uneven eighth notes like a light breeze, and making it all sound so, so easy. Lyrically, that feeling of being wary and weary of romance continues to creep up on the listener in “Too Marvelous for Words”, “Love and Marriage” (with its thin, gimmicky veil of displeasure that made it the natural pick for the theme song to “Married With Children”), and “(Love Is) The Tender Trap”.
But it’s not until the sixth track that Sinatra sucks the air out of the room. His fragile, aching, regret-drenched “I Get Along Without You Very Well” is a lament so nakedly sad, the poor guy singing it would sound plain pathetic if the poor guy singing it were just about anybody else. “I’ve forgotten you just like I should,” he croons at a near whimper. By the next breath, he can’t prop up the facade any longer: “Except to hear your name/Or someone’s laugh that is the same.” Grade-A heartbreaking.
Matching “I Get Along Without You” measure for impassioned measure, next up is Sinatra’s rendition of “All Of Me”. Listening to its slow, exuberant build, the way Sinatra ingests the pain of loss only to spit it back out as an attack, it just may be his greatest recording. The spotlight-loving theatricality, the selling-ice-to-the-Eskimos confidence with which he bellows his melodic taunt — “You took the part that once was my heart/So why not, why not take all of me?” — is skin-tinglingly unmatchable. Overflowing with dish and swagger, it’s easy to imagine as the showstopping number of a smash Broadway musical, the plot-hinger where “boy loses girl” becomes “boy wins girl back.”
From this back-to-back apex of adrenaline — really, the pairing of those two songs is reason enough to buy this — Sinatra II never fully recovers. The pleasant “I Thought About You” and the pastoral “Moonlight in Vermont” follow; the album then settles into a series of mid-tempo, moody chestnuts: “Pennies From Heaven,” “Learnin’ the Blues”, “I’ve Got A Crush On You”, and “Memories of You”. An exception is “High Hopes”, that silly bit of schtick with the kiddie chorus. I never noticed before the fat, distracting, ridiculous vibrato with which those kids sing. I also never noticed before that the song is quite bittersweet, a sort of comment on life’s little victories, and therefore worth a listen even by older ears.
Swinging Sinatra comes back into play towards the very end, on “Just One Of Those Things”, a lightweight sparkler, though I will always prefer Billie Holiday’s boozy, woozy version instead. As a final pitch to the Sinatra completist, the CD ends with a previously unreleased recording, “This Can’t Be Love”, and indeed it is only like; the song’s just fine and that’s that.
Where’s “The Way You Look Tonight”? “Luck Be A Lady”? “My Kind Of Town Chicago”? “Summer Wind”? The Chairman’s catalog has plenty left to plunder still, and even if they don’t fit into the thematic parameters of Sinatra II, any one of them would have made the collection better. But hey, “That’s Life.”