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Chris Isaak, the beautiful ‘noir’ prince that could have reigned

With a career spanning more than three decades, Isaak has more than proven that he has the talent to glide through various roots styles of American music and put a quality stamp on everything he plays

Chris Isaak en el festival Azkena.
Chris Isaak, at the Azkena festival in 2019.David Aguilar
Fernando Navarro

The word “crooner” is worn out, and yet Chris Isaak can’t seem to shake it off. He is a classic serenader, but he is also more of a musician than just a dapper suit. With a career spanning more than three decades, Isaak has more than proven that he has the talent to glide through various roots styles of American music and put a quality stamp on everything he plays. And yet, he is the handsome prince who might have reigned, and did.

This American musician with the bearing of an old Hollywood star gobbled up the nineties in one bite. His success was overwhelming with two almost perfect albums: Heart Shaped World (1989) and Forever Blue (1995). Between his debut in 1985 and the end of the nineties he released another handful of albums that were more than good.

A new figurehead had appeared in American music, able to open an alternative path to grunge, pop, traditional country, and almost any genre. Because Isaak appeared to be in a genre of his own after those two albums. He revealed himself as an artist with an imposing voice and an unbeatable stage presence. He gave us something approaching a well-understood lust for solitude. It was noir music. Broken and elegant, chiaroscuro, melodramatic, and cinematographic music. So much so that his songs have been featured in films such as Eyes Wide Shut, True Romance, Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet.

Looking in the mirror, Isaak has had no problem seeing the reflection of Elvis Presley or Roy Orbison. In fact, comparisons with them have been constant throughout his career. One could also mention Tony Benett and a certain Frank Sinatra. Major figures in setting hearts aflutter as if life depended on their overwhelmingly sentimental songs. The problem was that this reflection was always a double-edged sword and ended up obscuring part of his musical journey.

There is no doubt about the singing credentials of this guy who has become a film and television actor and TV show host. However, he has managed to break out of the cliché and demonstrate, as another great talent of the nineties Jeff Buckley pointed out, that he can do it all. Rock, rockabilly, soul, folk, country ... pop. Isaak has reached 2023 after a long stroll through music in which he has always shown poise and quality.

He is playing on Saturday at the BBK Bilbao Music Legends Fest 2023 in Spain, where he is headlining and sharing the bill with The Waterboys, Canned Heat, Nikki Lane and Luke Winslow-King. He has been a great support act for many years, relegated to second place behind other figures who have maintained their status. But it doesn’t matter. He is someone who has ended up being influential and is still a rising star in many music lovers’ hearts. This beautiful prince may have had a bigger kingdom waiting for him, true, but it shouldn’t matter either, as long as his sound is still so deep and passionate.

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