First Appeared at The Music Box, April 2001, Volume 8, #4
Written by Michael Karpinski
Chris Isaak first hit it big with Wicked Game — that insidiously ubiquitous, sizzling whisper of a single that, in tandem with its borderline soft-porn, sand-in-the-bikini-crack music video — would catapult 1989’s Heart Shaped World into the Top 10 and turn the former-boxer-with-the-nose-to-show-it into an impeccably pompadoured heartthrob. By 1993, the boy from the Bay was back with San Francisco Days, an album that didn’t dare tamper with its double-platinum predecessor’s formula. It too would consist of a roughly even mix of rockabilly ditties and broken-heart-on-his-sleeve ballads that openly worshipped at the altar of Orbison and offered flattering sacrifices to the legendary god that was ’50s and ’60s-era Sun Records.
Forever Blue, Isaak’s 1995 release, pretty much sticks to the same, tried-and-true blueprint, but it succeeds in injecting some much-needed — if subtle — layers and shadings into what was quickly becoming a predictable mix. Mind you, this is no musical revolution. Still on full-glass-case display are Isaak’s velvet croon of doom and sly-like-a-fox falsetto, as well as his rock-solid ensemble’s gracefully understated accompaniment. And, in another nod to past patterns, Isaak’s lyrics remain just as pigeon-hole one-note as ever — his invariably first-person narrators pining and whining for women who have stepped out on them — either literally, figuratively, or both.
This is certainly the case on the smoldering album opener Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing — in which Isaak alternates between a low-down growl (owing more to George Thorogood than John Lee Hooker) and a sky-high whine that has Del Shannon’s fingerprints all over it. Thereafter, however, the record settles into a somewhat more subdued groove. Graduation Day’s slide-guitar simmer never bothers to boil; Shadows in a Mirror reflects an even more tranquilized Hotel California with just a touch of Tijuana smuggled in at the borders; and Don’t Leave Me on My Own has a laid-back, Honolulu-hammock sway that suggests an Elvis-led luau in Blue Hawaii. The pace picks up a bit with the rockabilly rodeo stomper Goin’ Nowhere and the slow-burn hysterics of Go Walking Down There, which finds Isaak’s presumably two-timed alter-ego spitting his bitterness to the indifferent winds. His most convincing Orbison impression comes on the quavering chorus to Things Go Wrong, and, also like Orbison, he proves himself quite the canny crier (most notably on the album’s standout track — the divinely delicate Somebody’s Crying). As for that aforementioned foxy falsetto, it is utilized to heartbreaking effect on the barely-breathing Changed Your Mind, which combines the best of Angelo Badalamenti with decelerated Dire Straits.
No doubt some Chris Isaak fans will find Forever Blue too glacially-paced and restrained for their tastes. But what some call "sluggish," others call "leisurely." And what some designate "adventurous" and "eclectic," others dismiss as "unfocused" and "dim-sum indulgent." The fact is, Forever Blue holds together better than any of Isaak’s other collections — both musically and thematically. This is a record that has been thoughtfully envisioned and engineered for anybody who has ever loved and lost and then found themselves lost in the empty, awful aftermath. It provides just the sort of company that misery so loves, and the miserable so covet. It is a sounding board. A shoulder to cry on. Something that feels your pain and goes out of its way to commiserate with it. It lets you know you’re not alone. It lets you know when to let it go.
Forever Blue is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2001 The Music Box