Happy 30th Anniversary to Chris Isaak’s third studio album Heart Shaped World, originally released June 13, 1989.
The statuesque Chris Isaak posed in languished monochrome on the cover of his third studio album, Heart Shaped World, had no inkling of the stunning breakthrough he would experience about eighteen months after its June 1989 release.
He did seem to anticipate his new record could be as tough a sell on the airwaves as his first two efforts. 1985’s Silvertone and 1987’s Chris Isaak, despite their artistic merit and warm critical reception, carved Isaak a respectful but shallow niche in the commercial landscape without doing much to shift it.
"We got some radio play before, and I don't really feel slighted because most of the people I like who are getting a lot of play have six albums out or so,” he told Jim Washburn of the Los Angeles Times in June 1989.
“This is only my third album. I just figure if I keep doing stuff that I like, eventually I'll find people that like it too. The tough thing about radio is I've met a lot of people in it who like my music. But it's hard for them to figure out how to play what they like when there's somebody up above them yelling 'you have to play this.' It's weird. I'll go to radio stations and the deejay will say, 'I can't play your record, but will you autograph it?'”
Those words would soon become a cruel self-fulfilling prophecy. Despite receiving glowing reviews upon its release, Heart Shaped World would barely climb out of the bottom quarter of the Billboard 200 album chart.
Isaak’s label, Reprise, promptly shirked any further obligation to support it. “The ship has sailed,” an executive had declared, as recounted by manager-producer Erik Jacobsen to Rolling Stone in 1991.
The set’s first single, the excellent steady blues-rocker “Don’t Make Me Dream About You,” did little to drive sales or airplay. After just ten weeks, Heart Shaped World disappeared from the charts.
Left to ponder if their creative compass might have doomed its course, Isaak, Jacobsen, and his bandmates were back in the studio within a year to begin work on its successor.
As musical tales go, it’s a glum arc. But don’t worry—there’s a happy ending.
Cue a phone call from filmmaker and enthusiastic fan David Lynch, who reached out to Isaak’s camp looking for music to use in his upcoming dark comedy, Wild at Heart (Lynch first came knocking for tunes a few years before, using two songs from Isaak’s debut album in his 1986 vehicle, Blue Velvet). He settled on two tracks from Heart Shaped World’s track list: “Blue Spanish Sky,” and an instrumental version of the then-innocuous ballad, “Wicked Game.”
While Lynch’s film was not a hit, it lingered in theaters long enough for Atlanta’s WAPW (Power 99) FM music director Lee Chestnut to hear the voiceless take of Isaak’s song. Compelled by its ethereal melody and assured that it was a hit single, he added it to Power’s top forty rotation. Listener raves led to more spins and, with a bit of Chestnut’s networking capital, “Wicked Game” began to catch fire in markets across the country.
Shocked and awed by the song’s sudden insurrection, Isaak’s previously indifferent label rushed to issue a physical single, which arrived in November 1990. The once unknown album cut become Isaak’s first (and only, to date) top ten hit, reaching number six on the Billboard Hot 100 the week of March 2, 1991.
The success of “Wicked Game” also reinvigorated interest in its nearly forgotten parent album. Nearly two years after its release, Heart Shaped World reached a new peak of number seven on the Billboard 200 albums tally in early April 1991. The set was certified platinum that same month, and it has sold over two-and-a-half million copies in the United States alone to date.
While its unusual music biz triumph lends important context to its story, Heart Shaped World is, above all else, a superior record.
As its focal point, “Wicked Game” is a pristine union of Isaak’s aching vocal and the desolate wail of James Calvin Wilsey’s ’65 Stratocaster. Underneath, the brushed drum loop, simple bass line, and muted background vocals create a simmering atmospheric buzz.
Many have interpreted it as an impassioned torch song, but Isaak admittedly wrote the song as a prelude to a tryst. “There was a girl on the way over,” Isaak recalled to Rolling Stone. “It was one of those things where they call, they say, ‘I’m comin’ over.’ You know you shouldn’t, but you let ’em. Hang up the phone and go, ‘Oh, no. Now we’re gonna be in trouble.’ Anyway, I wrote ‘Wicked Game’ real quick. I hung up the phone and wrote the song. By the time she got there, I had the song pretty much finished.”
Heart Shaped World’s remaining tracks are tangled up in threads of isolation and regret, and Isaak’s voice seems like it was divinely designed to carry the weight of the world’s broken hearts. More than a few times over the course of his career, critics have lamented over how Isaak’s generously quirky and quick-witted on-stage persona could possibly exist in concert with the introspective songsmith that writes so frequently in dark shades of melancholy.
“I don’t think that my music and my humor are necessarily two separate things,” he offered in a 1991 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “They’re both part of me. A lot of my songs are ironic. It’s just that the easiest thing to pick up on in my music is this moodiness.”
In that spirit, not everything on Heart Shaped World is mired in shadows. “In the Heart of The Jungle,” is a six-minute joy jam between Isaak, Wilsey, bassist Rowland Salley, and drummer Kenney Dale Johnson (pay attention especially to his falsetto call-and-answer with Wilsey’s guitar just past the four-minute mark—it’s fantastic).
He also turns in a bubbly cover of Bo Diddley’s 1955 standard, “Diddley Daddy,” in which he playfully inserts his bandmates’ first names into the verses. And “Forever Young” is breezily optimistic with its rapid two-step beat and buoyant fingerpicked guitar riff.
That being said, it’s with wistful Isaak who can paint vividly emotional pictures with as little as a vocal inflection that I always seem to connect the strongest. “Nothing’s Changed” and “Kings of the Highway” are both brooding, rear-view mirror glances at bygone fragments of life—and each have just enough rockabilly sear to balance Isaak’s lyrical pensiveness with a little acidity.
But, it’s the album’s third single, “Blue Spanish Sky,” that I’ve revisited the most as I’ve assembled this retrospective. It’s a bleeding-heart dirge for lost love, and the pain of the song’s protagonist seeps from the sparse lyric (“it’s a slow, sad Spanish song / I knew the words, but I sang them wrong / the one I love has left and gone without me”). The miraculous surprise on the track is the distant trumpet solo almost mirrors the mournful echo of “Taps.”
Isaak reportedly wrote the song with legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in mind, hoping to ask him to play on it before he died in May 1988. It’s a captivating song made even more special as a tribute to his signature style.
Heart Shaped World remains Isaak’s most commercially successful album thirty years down the line. It was a pivotal project for Isaak on several fronts, giving him the public and industry renown that had eluded him since the start of his career.
The windfall had other implications, as well. The deeply-rooted creative partnership between Isaak and Wilsey that had steered the band’s work for over a decade began to dissolve. The follow-up to Heart Shaped World had been started in 1990, but the sessions were put on hold when the unexpected bang created by “Wicked Game” sent Isaak and company on the road for an entire year to support it.
When they returned to the studio to finish what would become 1993’s San Francisco Days, the division was noticeable.
“We started that album and things had changed,” Wilsey told Something Else! in a 2015 interview. “I only played on maybe half of the songs on that. I think basically we were just going our different ways, and that was kind of what that represented. That was kinda where we grew apart.”
Wilsey parted ways with Isaak, Salley, and Johnson in 1993, after which he occasionally released projects on his own, including a full-length album, El Dorado, in 2008. He died in December 2018.
Heart Shaped World’s most enduring impact may be that it afforded Isaak the leverage to stay authentically and unabashedly Isaak. For years, he had been an outsider whose music and image were considered too uncommon to be a part of the common pop vernacular. “Wicked Game” flipped the proverbial switch, quickly pulling him out of obscurity and into a universe where he kept company with Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Sting, and LL Cool J on the charts.
Isaak’s magnetic appeal was no longer an industry secret, and the opportunities followed—plum film and television roles in Little Buddha, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Friends, and From the Earth to the Moon, and even his own quasi-autobiographical cable sitcom, The Chris Isaak Show.
Early observers classed his work as overtly derivative of some of the country’s most iconic music influencers: Presley, Orbison, Nelson, Eddy. Heart Shaped World forged a pathway for Isaak’s own unique embodiment of Americana to achieve recognition—and affection—in its own right.