It begins with an orchestra tuning up. As the cacophony fades into actual music, a familiar voice tinged with melancholy joins in, crooning, “My name is Francis Albert, and I sing love songs, mostly after dark, mostly in saloons” as the backing choir sighs “Francis Albert…Sinatra.” As if he needed an introduction, even in 1980, the year he recorded the nearly eleven minute long epic “What Time Does the Next Miracle Leave.” Pop music might have left Sinatra behind, but his voice was still recognized by almost everyone. He was still an icon, if a fading one. And perhaps that’s worse than having never been an icon at all. Sinatra’s career was full of songs about loves lost, mistakes made, and regrets that haunt you as you prop yourself up at the bar in the wee small hours of the morning, alone, and order one more for the road. But in 1980, at age 65, songs that might have seemed contrived when he was a skinny blue-eyed kid, were lent a little more gravitas. And then the man so adept at looking back at the past decided to look forward, to the future, and record the strangest damn album of his career.
Trilogy: Past Present Future is the sort of bloated, self-important, but achingly earnest vanity project that warms my heart. Pretty much everyone involved with it thought it was a terrible idea. Everyone but Frank, that is, and in the end, that’s the only opinion that mattered. For the first two albums of what was a three-album set, one might wonder what all the fuss was about. The first album in the trilogy, “The Past,” finds the aging superstar retreading familiar territory, delivering the kind of maudlin love songs and swingin’ tunes fans like me love. Out of place in 1980, sure, but there was still an audience for Sinatra’s brand of easy listening. The second album, “The Present,” found Sinatra recording rock and pop hits in his own style. A little weirder, but big band and easy listening covers of popular rock and psych tunes was nothing new; people had been recording such things since the 1960s. At least. Sinatra himself had already covered plenty of the sort of pop music that had rendered him uncool. It’s one of the songs on “The Present,” Sinatra’s cover of “New York, New York” from the flop Martin Scorsese film of the same name (Liza Minnelli performed it in the movie), that cemented Trilogy‘s status as a hit record despite the critical lambasting.
But what was the case of that lambasting? Everything for the first two albums is pretty rote Sinatra, maybe not in step with The Ramones and Blondie and pop music at the dawn of the 1980s but hardly deserving of vitriol. “Reasonable tunes for old folks,” one might say. And why, for that matter, would someone write about this album in a column dedicated to science fiction? Well, put the third album, “The Future,” on the turntable, and it all becomes a lot clearer.
As Frank needlessly introduces himself on the first track of the third album, we get the feeling that we’re back in “lonesome crooner” territory, with Frank backed by a breathy choir and soaring strings and woodwinds arranged by his long-time collaborator Gordon Jenkins. As Frank ruminates about getting older, sitting in the backyard, having a drink and probably expecting Dean Martin to grill him up some hamburgers, it all seems perfectly normal…until the Mission Control announcer starts naming off planetary destinations, at which time I guess Frank drifts off to sleep, dreaming about exploring the universe. Cue the bombastic brass, soaring strings, zu-zu-zoom-wow chorus, and utterly bizarre lyrics that find Sinatra traveling the spaceways, visiting far-off planets, beholding the wonders of the cosmos, marveling at the technology of the future, and of course, wooing a dream girl on Venus.
“The Future,” despite being divided into separate songs, is basically one single suite, a concept album in which Sinatra taps the space-capades sound of 1960s “bachelor pad pop” like Esquivel and Les Baxter as he prowls around the solar system. The mood shifts wildly and abruptly, here light and breezy, there haunting and melancholy, and elsewhere as bombastic and operatic as a Busby Berkeley musical number. “Uranus is heaven!” Sinatra proclaims (don’t tell me he didn’t know exactly what he was doing there) as the choir chants “Heaven!” over and over. When an ethereal female voice asks him how Sinatra will recognize heaven, the music suddenly goes traditional Italian, and he explains that if he’s met at the gates by someone giving him a big pizza, he’ll know he’s in Heaven.
The second track, “World War None,” once again places us in a familiar Sinatra setting: the desert. One things perhaps Palm Springs or Vegas, at least until a male chorus starts aggressively chanting “War! War! War!” and everything suddenly goes bizarrely apocalyptic, with Sinatra’s upbeat tempo betrayed by visions of fire and destruction and the need to purge ourselves of hate and violence so that we can have a “World War None.” The next three songs comprise a self-contained trilogy within the Trilogy, just like “The Three Shadows” on the Bauhaus’ album The Sky’s Gone Out (OK, maybe not just like it). The space-capades chorus celebrates all the wonders of the Jetsons-style future Old Man Sinatra now inhabits, including rockets, spaceships, computers, and most miraculous of all, “buttons you can push.”
It all sounds like something you’d hear while standing on a people mover in Disney’s Tomorrowland. But when faced with all the innovations of the future, all Sinatra really wants is a conductor’s baton, with which he could work musical magic that would put the UNIVAC and Betamax machines to shame. The final song of “The Future,” the final song of this whole oddball excursion into Sinatra’s strange vision of the future (or the present, which as you get older can look more and more like the future), is another ten-minute epic that examines Sinatra’s own obsolescence. Now, when Sinatra walks into a bar, rather than being among fans and friends, he feels forlorn. “I know nobody here.” His only wish at the end of his trip through the galaxy, after his vision quest to the future, is to make one more album with good friends and good musicians, to rage against the coming of “that cat with a scythe” by singing away his final hours.
Gordon Jenkins worked with Sinatra on, among others, one of my favorite of Frank’s melancholy albums, No One Cares, the songs on which Sinatra referred to as “suicide songs.” Jenkins loved strings and bombast, and on “The Future” he completely unfettered himself, indulging his every melodramatic whim. Jenkins’ flare for moodiness infuses Future, which began life as a symphonic theme piece retelling Sinatra’s life story (written by Jenkins without Sinatra’s knowledge) with an air of “mood indigo.” When Jenkins played it for Sinatra, who was in one of his frequent states of self-destructive depression, the aging singer perked up. In a time that was steeped New Wave space pop, disco, and electro-funk — musics made with synthesizers and computers — Sinatra’s “The Future” is as backward looking as it is forward. This third record in Trilogy was, after all, subtitled “Reflections on the Future in Three Tenses.” The sort of space-pop sound he taps for the future is from the past, and he combines it with his usual standards style jazz, show tunes, gee-whiz Disney wonder, and the bleak introspection Jenkins seemed to bring out in Sinatra and at which Sinatra excelled. The result is everything people accuse it of being: beautiful, bombastic, ridiculous, overblown, and moving.
Trilogy was a hit record despite how dark it is at its core, despite how many critics loathed it, and how out of step it seemed to be with pop music of the time (Sinatra was nominated for a Grammy that year, but he lost to Kenny Loggins). One critic famously referred to the album as “narcissistic” and “a shocking embarrassment.” If there was any question regarding Sinatra’s “past his expiration date” power, all it took was one phone call from the Chairman of the Board to the critic’s employer to get that critic suspended. Now over 35 years after its release, Trilogy is all but forgotten save for “New York, New York,” and no one thinks of that song in its original context or recalls the album on which it appeared. Nothing on “The Future” is remembered, and the entire album itself is only remembered by the sort of people who still talk fondly of KISS’ bizarre prog rock fantasy concept album Music from The Elder, released just a year after Trilogy.
Cool is a fickle beast, after all, and those who were cool at one time either die young or inevitably grow old enough to see themselves become uncool. Sinatra was cool, then along came Elvis. Elvis was cool, then along came The Beatles (Frank covers them both on “The Present”). But if you stick around even longer, eventually cool comes back around to you. Time blurs the lines. And in 2016, decades after Sinatra’s death and more decades still since he recorded Trilogy, this delirious expedition into science fiction space pop, has taken you out to Pluto (“a rotten place” — making Sinatra one of the first people to diss the humble no-longer-planet) and returned you to where it all began: inside the mind of an aging icon, a man coming to terms with his past, and his place — or lack of it — in the future. A hundred years after his birth, here we are still, talking about him. And at least some of us, talking about Trilogy and “The Future.” Enjoy that pizza pie on Uranus, Frank.