Thirty-eight years ago on a huge #1, Nancy Sinatra made her suede-toned warning that “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” For the piano finale of Nancy Sinatra, her return to recording, she sings “Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad,” written by Bono and the Edge and recorded with a band that includes Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton. As with U2’s finest work, the narrative—a woman haltingly remembers an iconoclastic singer who won and lost, arced and ached—persists without overpowering the deliberate story the arrangement tells, while ideas take root, bloom, and link together. Sinatra, whose alto flutters but doesn’t cede sensuous control, meditates on saloon singing after “the chairs are all stacked” and “the swingers stopped swinging.”
That Sinatra’s father was the emperor of saloon is one of the several rich veins she and U2 tap. That his daughter scored 11 Top 40 hits between 1966 and 1968 in a voice the overwhelming character of which might accurately be described as two shots of happy, one shot of sad is another. That those hits, made with the writer-producer Lee Hazlewood, a crazy master of trash and elevation, represented a singular instance of Hollywood country-rock is still another.
Sinatra sings all of Nancy Sinatra in exceptional Nancy Sinatra style; the sonic ins and outs of her velvet tenacity are the reason to listen. On “Baby’s Coming Back to Me,” another ballad, she flows through the big-beat opening verse, celebrating children, radio tunes, peace. Then in the chorus, Sinatra bursts out with “And baby’s coming back to me” without ever quite bursting out. She negotiates this reversal with an odd beauty, somehow consonant with the fact that, in the conception of Jarvis Cocker, who wrote the song, her baby has been “just sleeping somewhere.” But again, Sinatra’s creative backstory is why it works: When Sinatra recorded “Jackson” with Hazlewood in 1967 she sang—in a scintillating tonal play perhaps thinkable only from, say, the great Tammy Wynette—about getting married in “a fever hotter than a pepper sprout” as though she were bored by the memory.
If all of Nancy Sinatra operated at the level of these tracks it would amount to Sinatra’s Van Lear Rose. But Jack White took Loretta Lynn indie-rock Nashville with an unquenchable musical hunger and attainment that never had to feel sheepish about following the work of a music maestro as juicy and august as the late Owen Bradley. AJ Azzarto, Matt Azzarto, and Don Fleming, Sinatra’s producers, do something else. They craft an indie-rock Nancy Sinatra, way too much of which is way too 1994. “Burnin’ Down the Spark,” a sweeping melody with a hint of ’60s-pop-style bolero done few favors by gung ho strings as loud as the horns, is stirring but off-balance—too bratty—for Sinatra’s smoky style. Morrissey’s “Let Me Kiss You” is so encrusted with hard guitar jangle that it’s plain work to concentrate on how lusciously Sinatra exposes the tune’s zigzag of melody, imagination, identity, desire. Other songs have Sinatra rock or move around iconically or—in the case of Thurston Moore’s “Momma’s Boy”—sing, of all the misguided things in the world, a Sonic Youth ballad, replete with faux avant-classical melody. And it doesn’t help that, on “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time,” the other Jarvis Cocker track, Sinatra gamely sings the line “Then some skinny bitch walks by in some hot pants.” This mistake seems unimaginable; Jarvis Cocker knows fully well that even Hugh Hefner revivalists don’t need his actual 1964 pajamas.
Clearly, Sinatra’s producers understand her place in time and space. They realize that, during the stern era of rock-only thinking, Sinatra’s talents weren’t erased by dancing on TV’s Hullabaloo, or wearing white lipstick opposite Elvis in the movies, or failing to smoke weed with Graham Nash, or whatever. But so unlike Jack White, they seem trapped in indie-rock in a way that precludes the kind of music and focus that might make Nancy Sinatra be about Nancy Sinatra—instead of 317 indie-rock stylistic rules and dead ends.