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He’d be nothing without that surf-perfect wave of diligently Dippitied ‘do, of course. His busted boxer’s nose—smushed during his early years as a tomato-can pugilist in Japan—contrasts so nicely with his pretty-boy tresses that he’s still pinup-handsome well into his 40s. And that crushed-velvet voice and splendid wuss-boy falsetto have aged just as fine. But good looks and great pipes aside, Chris Isaak’s best asset has always been his desire to write and sing superslick popabilly about one thing and one thing only: true-blue heartache. Politics and sales figures and full-blown celebrity be damned, the laid-back throwback has forever been wandering in an old-time kind of love—and that’s just the way the die-hard Roy Orbison devotee likes it.
Tucked away in his San Francisco bungalow—complete with a big bottomless jar of his much-beloved Tang—the appropriately single Isaak has made eight albums with his three-man Silvertone backing band, and the lyrical lament on each record has always been the same. If the guy has ever had a healthy, happy relationship—or if he’s ever been the dumper instead of the dumpee—you certainly wouldn’t know it from his songs. From “Wicked Game” to “Somebody’s Crying” to his newest sad-eyed single, “Let Me Down Easy,” Isaak is either longing for a lady or watching her cruelly walk away. Even when he sounds aw-shucks happy—such as on 1995 release Forever Blue’s two-thirds bouncy, one-third devastating “I Believe”—you know it’s just a matter of time until the poor bastard gets kicked to the curb. “I believe in a beautiful day/I believe it’s gonna work out OK,” he exults over a two-step beat and plucky guitar—that is, before cutting the jangle and suddenly lamenting, “But not for me/And not for you.” It’s a helluva switch, and “I Believe” remains jarring after umpteen listens.
With Isaak’s current showbiz comeback, you’d think he’d be able to cut back on the Kleenex and give his troubled heart a rest. Now in its second season and reason alone to stop dawdling and sign up for cable, Showtime’s smart and sly The Chris Isaak Show—think Larry Sanders with studded cowboy suits and a naked rotating spiritual guide (just watch the show, OK?)—is generating plenty of buzz and even got our man on the cover of TV Guide. And because of his budding boob-tube success, his new album, Always Got Tonight, is being pushed hard by both the brain trust at VH1 and the hucksters at Best Buy. Isaak hasn’t garnered this much attention since he hit the beach with a topless Helena Christensen.
Despite all this recent good fortune, however, Always Got Tonight—which, with its abundance of hooks and showcase moments for the Silvertone boys, just may be his most satisfying album to date—features the man as more woman-wounded than ever. Isaak is now pretty much down on his knees and begging Her to stay. Opener “One Day” is an Eaglesesque rocker with Hershel Yatovitz’s warbly guitar giving a howling Isaak the courage to ask for another (fat) chance. The self-explanatory “Let Me Down Easy,” with its weepy singalong chorus and easy midtempo beat, is the most obvious AC hit in the entire Isaak songbook, proving that he could have been a steady Top 40 presence in another time. And “Worked It Out Wrong” is perhaps his finest nod yet to Orbison, complete with a sweeping drama-king break—”Time/Time means nothing/Nothing means nothing when you’re gone/Baby, I’m lonely/And I’m sorry/I was wrong”—that features the singer sappily soaring skyward.
But for all of Isaak’s obvious emotional outbursts and tried-and-true “nothing means nothing” talk, there are other times when he absolutely nails the woozy vibe of a relationship’s more subtle stages. On the standout “I See You Everywhere,” a Saturday-morning-lazy number kept smooth ‘n’ steady by drummer Kenney Dale Johnson and bassman Rowland Salley, the singer finds himself falling hard for a woman who he thinks maybe, just maybe, is falling hard for him, too. But with all the seemingly sweet lines being tossed around—”You’ve been telling everybody/How much you love me/But I don’t know/I don’t know”—what to believe? Whom to believe? (Why in the hell does this guy keep dating, anyway?) Despite his worries, however, Isaak, guided by Yatovitz’s twangy guitar, lets it all hang out in the curiously uplifting chorus, assuming he’s going to get pummeled but going for it nonetheless: “‘Cause I see you everywhere/And you’re always on my mind/And I see you everywhere/No more cryin’ now/No more cryin’.”
With such a kickass band behind him, Isaak is wise to realize that sometimes the only thing that can mend his achy-breaky ticker is simply to rock out. Along with the hard-charging “One Day,” Isaak picks up the pace on Always Got Tonight with the bloozy title track and “Notice the Ring,” a silly warning to post-30 daters. And fans of his TV program will be happy to hear that the infectious honky-tonkin’ theme song, “American Boy,” is here in its entirety. That said, Isaak is, and always has been, most comfortable when he’s being made uncomfortable by a pesky paramour. Sure, he displays a dry comic wit on The Chris Isaak Show, and he certainly is a handsome dude. But I’m thinking you can fake heartache for only so long, and this is a guy with a seriously shitty romantic track record. It’s truly a wonder that the only drinking problem Isaak has had so far is his dependence on the orange beverage preferred by astronauts—and, apparently, the lovelorn. CP