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Chris Isaak
Speak of the Devil

Reviewed by G. Beato

Chris Isaak, a musician with more movie appearances than record albums to his credit, has always acknowledged the absurd artifice of his role as rock's most diligent lonelyheart. Indeed, when one's art requires a new declaration of eternal allegiance every three minutes or so, the occasional wink becomes a necessary part of the mix. Without it, Isaak would seem pathological, a mood-swinging lover less interested in actual romance than in the endorphin rush of a really debilitating cardiovascular workout.

Earlier in his career, Isaak was most likely to subvert his earnest singer-man persona in glib interviews and onstage banter, and in the tossed-off genericism of his lyrics: if every girl that caught his eye simply registered as "pretty," how important could any one of them really be? With his last two albums, 1996's Baja Sessions and his current release, Speak of the Devil, Isaak has taken his self-subversion to a new, more resonant level, and as a consequence, these albums stand as his best work to date.

Baja Sessions was a deliberate attempt to present the overly controlled formalist in an informal light. The songs are spare and loose and many of them are covers - even the renditions of Isaak originals culled from earlier albums, like "Pretty Girls Don't Cry" and "Two Hearts," sound like covers. That is, nothing much seems to be at stake. It's as if Isaak and his bandmates are playing simply because they forgot their radio and the margaritas go better with music. The result is an off-handed pop masterpiece, the soundtrack to some great lost Elvis movie.

In some respects, Speak of the Devil is the antithesis of Baja Sessions and its breezy sound. Isaak has said that he was going for "a touch of Phil Spector," and on songs like "Breaking Apart," a ballad that features strings, a female co-vocalist, and a piano that would almost be at home in a Bob Seger Chevy commercial, he certainly achieves it. But along with instrumentation that is both more bombastic and more experimental than most of Isaak's previous work, much of Baja's breeziness remains.

Isaak himself sounds looser than ever; on the album's track, which references both Creedence Clearwater Revival and one of rock's all-time great devils, Jumping Jack Flash, Isaak sounds more like swamp howler John Fogerty than his usual velvety analogues, Elvis and Ray Orbison. And in what may be a first, Isaak actually infuses his lyrics with a touch of his considerable wit: "I keep listening very quietly/and discussing your philosophy/there's a long list of what's wrong with me..." he quips with deadpan cynicism on "Please." And on the sock-hop rave-up, "I'm Not Sleepy," he issues the the following uncharacteristically prosaic proposition: "Come on over, you can hang with me/Lie in bed, we can watch TV."

Of course, there's still enough loneliness and aimless heartbroken wandering and plaintive requests for just one more chance with you, babe, to satisfy hardcore romantics. Unlike so many other artists in this age of pandemic self-awareness, Isaak knows how to wear his insincerity lightly: if you want to take every falsetto affirmation of timeless devotion at face value, he won't hit you over the head with his irony.

Which makes him what, exactly? In the early years of his career, when the rockbilly revival was in full swing, Isaak wasn't enough of a purist to ride that wave to the top-of-the-charts oblivion that the more cartoonish Stray Cats did. And ever since, he's always been too much of a throwback to represent the zeitgeist at the arena level. But over a career in which he's been too consistently successful to ever contemplate a comeback, while at the same recording only one Top 10 hit, he's developed into what has become a relatively rare entity: an entertainer who can belt one out and cut it up with equal aplomb. In another era, he might have been ad-libbing on stage at the Sands with Dino, Frank, and Sammy. Today, he exists as his own private Rat Pack.

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