The Legends of Laurel Canyon
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You The Best
Transfiguration of Vincent
Christmas in the Heart
Glitter and Doom Live
Let It Roll: The Best of George Harrison
Secret, Profane & Sugarcane
Playing for Change
History has a way of clogging things up for contemporary artists. Anybody who wanted to make music in the 50's or the 60's didn't suffer from the gravity of history while developing their work as much as modern artists do. Over time, it can start to feel as though all of the good ideas have been taken and that the best that can be done is to creatively recycle something that somebody else already did. This bears no reflection on modern artists or the quality of their work, but it can explain why most new ideas don't seem to be as innovative as those that came before. It's just a fact of life that artists now are seriously limited by a dwindling supply of authentically original niches that are still available to claim as their own. For example, rock and roll is nothing if not rebellious, but how many different ways of rebelling can possibly exist (assuming we're going to remain legal, anyway) and does it make as much sense to continue playing by rock and roll's rules if they no longer grant artists enough room to move freely? How often do we find ourselves describing new artists as offshoots or hybrids of other artists? The very fact that a museum now exists to laud our past rock-and- roll heroes means that there are quantifiable means for determining whether or not something is "rock and roll" enough. If we constantly repeat the patterns of our past, though, then we are negating the force – the ingenuity - that made rock and roll such a vital form in the first place.
Perhaps the best that we can expect is to have the most timeless aspects of our rock-and-roll culture revived from time to time while accepting new ideas as the force of change that rock and roll needs to survive. In the broadest of terms, this would mean that techno, rap, and the other assorted children spawned with rock-and-roll hearts should be celebrated for keeping the cutting-edge essence alive, while traditionalists can continue to revel in the spirits of rock and roll's past by appreciating the music of Counting Crows, the Wallflowers or Chris Isaak.
The spiritual connection that rock and roll has maintained to the Memphis branch of its roots has never diminished and is one of the primary reasons that Elvis Presley became an undying icon. Sun Studios and Graceland have progressed from landmarks to holy sites. By singing a forlorn and brooding style that is thoroughly modern but also reminiscent of early rockabilly, Isaak has adopted a much-revered musical terrain. His Elvis Presley cum Roy Orbison cum Slim Whitman (no kidding) vocals are classic Southern-country croon, particularly since they are ensconced in James Calvin Wilsey's spacious guitar work, which itself is reminiscent of what Duane Eddy would have sounded like had he been produced by Brian Eno.
It is this fascinating blend of the familiar with the new that makes Isaak's best work stand out. At his best, his songs sound simultaneously familiar and unpredictable, almost invoking a sense of deja vu. The word 'evocative' can easily be overused to describe anything as intangible as a song, but "Wicked Game" makes it an impossible word to avoid. The song is rife with imagery while being careful to avoid the specificity of a distinct picture. From the instant Wilsey's guitar introduces the opening bars with a wavering note that bends perilously toward its intended pitch, "Wicked Game" can cause your blood to freeze right in your veins. The instrumental introduction sets up a mood of romantic obsession and displacement unlike any other song I have ever heard. Drenched in reverb, with a healthy dose of tremolo (at least that's what my old and cheap amplifier used to call this vibrato effect), the descending phrase is as unsettling and yet as captivating as the romantic obsession that Isaak goes on to relate, while raising the spirit of undying legends of America's neo-holy ground, Memphis.
Some emotions are thoroughly beyond our ability to contain. Once love and its mind-warping sidekick, desire, kick in, things like logic and responsibility are rendered impotent, irrelevant even. "Wicked Game" conveys that moment when love goes beyond distraction to become an unwelcome obsession. The conflicting nature of overpowering love and a need for control sets up a perfect blend of passion and anguish that is as romantic as it is illicit. When you have no control, all you can do is surrender; once you succumb, your life will never be the same again.
The underlying beauty of "Wicked Game" is the way it avoids telling a story and instead bathes us in a netherworld that perfectly captures a purely emotional state. Only the haunting production connotes the inevitable loss of control that the lyrics suggest. Not only is the style timeless, but the song seems to be coming from a place outside of where time exists. It has been said that the most alive humans can feel is when they are closest to death. As some psychoanalysts have espoused, fulfillment of an all-powerful and overwhelming desire (i.e., great sex) is as close as we can come to experiencing the finality of death without dying. Like the wavering guitar that can suggest a note without sustaining it, a passion tortures you until your soul is suspended and hovering somewhere between the two polarized states of life and death. If the passion is absolute, then so is the sense of fatalism that accompanies it. Choice is not an issue. "Wicked Game" is an aural depiction of the moment when you surrender to the void and fall into the hands of eternity (and you thought it was just a love song).