Forgive this brief diversion from Grow Mercy’s usual concerns (not like it’s a first), but I’m down at Credo Coffee, and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” is just now coming over the speakers, knocking my train of thought off its feeble track, getting my full attention.
I do not know Chris Isaak, but I’m here to extol his “Wicked Game.” It’s a pop song that’s been around, now, over a quarter of a century. One made famous, or certainly more famous, by David Lynch’s movie, Wild at Heart.
Why so arresting? Well, it’s not the lyrics, which are but the expressed milk of puerile desire, and of which I will have nothing further to say except that they too readily connect me to an old memory, and a time, when, chagrin, I could have, would have, written something just as jejune and droop-eyed—for I was burned, wickedly… …oh Louise! why did you leave me standing in that phone booth on 17 Avenue? bereft, undone, my life a hollow drone of dial tone, and all but over at 19…! ahem, so no, not the lyrics.
What then? It’s the haunting. The melodic haunting of the very first note. The sonic haunting of a Stratocaster (I’m thinking vintage white) with tremolo bar, the loose reverb and decorous delay of a Silverface Twin, and the slow-dive and up-glide of a single note. Why so beautiful? why so evocative? why should it leave me thinking of the moon shivering through mullioned windows, or a lone, late night lane walk, or feeling the chill of some distant cry across water?
And it’s the croon of Chris Isaak, breaking from a supple baritone to a sure-footed falsetto, like pulled taffy, and as mellifluous—the sebaceous lyrics fallen and forgotten in the constellation of voice and Fender-Strat.
And it’s the simplicity of arrangement: the minor regression of three chords; the silk arpeggios giving the impression of horns’ swell; the snake-and-ladder aeolian vamping; the B-string, willowing at a single fret, suggesting the infinite number of minor shades within a major step; and finally the solo coda—one aspiring note, sung and held hurdy-gurdy high, a Gregorian drone, aspirating, anticipating an end, yet endless.
Where would we be without the intercourse of rhythm and song with unrequited love, lost love and desire, juvenile or no, to draw out the brilliance of say, a Neruda, or tempt some low-rent scribe to overwrite (like the one I have to constantly babysit), or, as is the case here, to deliver to the ear of this pop-rock-Pythagorean, at least once in his life, the music of the spheres?