The San Francisco crooner struck platinum by finding a middle ground between ominous and amorous on his classic third LP
The photo gave it away.
On the cover of Chris Isaak’s 1989 breakthrough album, Heart-Shaped World, he is one lonely guy, as per usual.
First, on his 1985 debut, Silvertone (Warner Bros.), there’s an extreme close-up of a guy whose looks ought to make the word “lonely” about as familiar to him as the Sanskrit word for pompadour. And the music inside should’ve done the same for his musical state of mind – classic crooner heave that melded moonlit beach fire gather-round with hazy visions of the big city neo-roots rock that was going on in mid-80s L.A. (Isaak living up in San Francisco at the time). It sold about what most out-of-nowhere major label debuts sell, meaning not much.
For whatever A&R suit got Isaak signed back then, sales probably wouldn’t have been the pitch anyway. 1950s-styled croon tunes weren’t exactly in vogue, with new British synth pop and leftover ‘70s stadium rock being chart pillars at the time, and hair metal creeping up behind them. And Isaak didn’t come carrying an indie resume either, no previous cred-primed 7” singles or self-released LP. But I mean, come on, look at this guy?! How do you not sign him? There must still be a place in the world for charming, good looking, breakup bemoaners in the music world, right? His touring habits and growing audience seemed to say yes.
VIDEO: Chris Isaak – Dancin
Then on the self-titled second Warner Bros. album from 1986, the camera is backing up, things look darker, that chiseled face obscured. And the album continued on in the same vein, if with a little more gloss. It was bigger, even a bit brash (yup, some of that “’80s drum sound”), and strumming more sharply into his rock’n’roll heart – not an obvious choice for a singer of face and voice whose most obvious sales suggestion might’ve been to go the cradled chianti and hairy chest route. A little more press trickled in, and his first truly excellent single, “Blue Hotel,” got some play, but otherwise the album similarly languished in chart shadows.
VIDEO: Chris Isaak – Blue Hotel
Even college radio didn’t really know where, how, or why to fit in Isaak’s brand of neo-abilly, nearly five years after the brief Stray Cats-led rockabilly revival; and not being attitudinally in line with the punk-sprung roots rock that was simmering out west. At the time, I would’ve thought a Long Ryders / True West / Chris Isaak bill would’ve been great, but then I wasn’t an A&R guy.
While initial impressions might have been that Isaak was a talented but ill-timed retro act, there was always more going on behind that magnetic mug. His guitarist and co-songwriter was James Calvin Wilsey, who cut his calluses in the amazing San Francisco punk originators, the Avengers.
VIDEO: The Avengers (featuring James Calvin Wilsey, Chris Isaak’s guitarist and co-songwriter) – The American in Me
And while Isaak himself probably never fancied himself some DIY couch-surfer (though he was an actual water surfer), he sure toured like one; and truth is, independent radio play, that seemed to recognize the modern edges to his sound, did keep his career afloat in those shaky days.
Within the sophomore album’s production, Wilsey cranked up and echoed out a bit; and any music head stumbling upon Isaak would’ve further heard an obvious debt to latter day Roxy Music’s mutations of classic torch song trembling, full of distant boomy snare, tinges of high-pitched female backup bemoaning (though that’s usually Isaak – dude can really sing), and his ever more confident vocals. Though within the assured delivery, the lyrics remained as darkly heartbroken as ever.
Isaak had had a bunch of that for real. A former failed amateur boxer, he’d had his nose broken many times, and spent much of his 20s traveling around busking by his lonesome, not knowing what to do with these songs he’d been writing. Isaak was not just the suave, neo-Elvis of those first two albums, but a guy who’d been around. He was a few years older than you’d think, and much funnier and goofy than you’d expect. (That would come to full fruition on his fun 2001-04 Showtime series, The Chris Isaak Show). But two albums in, his career was like that beach campfire sizzling down around 1am, after most of the guests have stumbled off.
So by Heart Shaped World, three years later, we have a wide shot of Isaak staring into an abyss (probably just bummed out that he lost the little slip of paper from last night that had her number on it). But instead of some gauzy pretty boy face shot, we see a noir-like flophouse scene, Isaak sitting on a skimpy bed, rubbing his hands like he’s cooking up a bigger scheme (or at least wracking his brain for what her name was). And sure enough, Heart Shaped World was a cooker.
Finally utilizing the full palette of James Calvin Wilsey’s talents (right on the precipice of him leaving the Isaak camp due to the usual demons), the album view pulls back to expose and combine the best of what this searcher had been looking for. Guitars get twangier, drums a little shiftier, and Isaak is in full command of his croon. “Don’t Make Me Dream About You,” adds some roadhouse swagger; there’s the falsetto folk swing of “I’m Not Waiting;” the Latin-inflected bop of “Forever Young” laid out the beach party vibe he’d lean into on the next couple albums; and the gorgeous, spooky lounge lament, “Blue Spanish Sky;” showed he might have a great sense of humor, but he does not kid around when he wants to melt every heart in the room. Which brings us to, of course, “Wicked Game.”
Like women, the sex drive of a true crooner’s voice hits its peak into the mid-30s, and that particular orgasm came about with the massive worldwide hit of “Wicked Game.” Aided by, indeed, a quite sexy video, the song has become a standard, the kind of timeless ballad that almost becomes a parody for all the romantic comedies and perfume commercials it gets crammed into. But make no mistake, it’s one of the best torch songs of the end of the 20th century.
VIDEO: Chris Isaak – Wicked Game
At first, Heart Shaped World fared only slightly better than Isaak’s previous two albums, and “Wicked Game” only hit when it was reissued as a single off the soundtrack for the hit movie, Wild at Heart, in late summer, 1990. The obvious appeal of that famous video didn’t hurt, but it is imperative to explain how bizarre it was that that song (and ultimately that album) was a hit in 1990. There hadn’t been anything like this kind of shadowy, slinky, minimal swoon tune on mainstream radio in decades. Hair metal, some burgeoning hip-hop, and boy bands was topping the charts, and grimy, loud grunge was about to topple most of that. “Wicked Game” proved – if only for a few, fleeting weeks – that hushed, yearning lust and loneliness will find a way to seep through the predominant teen bounce of the Top 40 every once in a while.
True, a little of Isaak’s earlier crunch got sanded down a bit (not that he was ever exactly the Cramps), but anyone left who figured Isaak might be some rockabilly revival daddy-o probably jumped ship at this point. But for every greaser who jumped off, there were five swooning ladies climbing onto Heart Shaped World. 1995’s Forever Blue was probably Isaak’s masterpiece, but Heart Shaped World was where he arrived and remained as America’s foremost chest-clutching divorcee’s dream.
VIDEO: Chris Isaak on Letterman, 1991