March 15, 2002

The Birth of the Crooner

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What justifies the existence of the word “crooner?” Like “defenestration” (the act of throwing someone or something out of a window) the scope of the word is too precise to be very useful. As a result, “crooner” is almost exclusively used with a dash of self-conscious irony. But what is a real “crooner”? Not merely a singer — many strains must come together to create a crooner.

A “crooner” is male and objectively good-looking. He must possess a great voice that is smooth, silky, and immediately pleasant to the ear, there is never a need for it to grow on you. The crooner’s voice must remain sensitive without slipping into paranoia, effeminacy, or dialect. The crooner’s repertoire must consist of songs dealing with the timeless themes of love, loss, loneliness, repentance, and beauty. Overstepping these thematic boundaries or expressing them using unfamiliar and strange poetic techniques is not a path open to the crooner. Musically the crooner can’t be experimental, but must stick to the classic models — mid-tempo rockers, love ballads, Sinatra-esque arrangements, etc. The crooner must hold his weight as a singer/songwriter while retaining the ability to step back and become background music. Most importantly while the individual elements of the crooner imply corniness, the true crooner while holding hands with many a corny element manages to miraculously avoid falling into the pit of insincerity.

Chris Isaak is a crooner in the full irony-free sense of the word. He has been a crooner for a long time and remains so on his eighth record Always Got Tonight. Blessed with a lovely voice that combines the pleasing low lonely sounds with an occasional convincing falsetto, most notably in the choruses, Isaak sounds like the obedient son of Roy Orbison. Musically, Isaak is never rebellious and mixes slow sad ballads with more uptempo rockabilly-tinged rock n’ roll songs that comfortably borrow guitar licks and melodies from the sound of late fifties/early sixties America.

It’s hard to criticize Isaak for lack of originality because he seems earnest in reinterpreting music that given his fine execution seems timeless. This whole record seems to be very much in tune with the idea of imitation being the highest form of flattery. Isaak is aware of this, flatly claiming to be “the original American boy” in “American Boy” on all fronts a perfect counterpart to Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” The title track is weak and varies considerably from the rest of the album sounding like a cross between Roy Orbison (of course) and the latest funky incarnation of Beck. The finest moments of this record are the seductive slower ballads like “Life Will Go On” that sound much like steamy and sexy “Wicked Game” that earned Isaak mainstream exposure.

Always Got Tonight, like Chris Isaak, is likeable and relaxing but leaves this listener wanting something more. I have a hunch however that this blue-eyed crooner doesn’t want to give me the innovation that I desire, and I respect him for that. Plus, given that this man has starred in a David Lynch movie and I have not, can I really judge?

Archived article by Maxim Pozdorovkin