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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

The soft but captivating "Wicked Game" set the stage for the modern 'love song'

Few songs haunt like Chris Isaak's signature hit and the unavoidable attraction it describes.

Today was the right kind of day for me to look to the softer side of music for my Senior Year Soundtrack. In my tired state after a long week of classes and meetings, and with a long football Saturday ahead of me, I spent the evening listening to mellow songs, opting for flowing melodies instead of hard-hitting grooves. My listening led me through a number of eras before I was once again galvanized by one of the most emotionally stirring tracks I've ever heard: Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game."

In his breakthrough song, Stockton-born Isaak captures, in his own words, "what happens when you have strong attraction to people that aren't necessarily good for you." The conflict between not wanting to be in love with the track's subject and slowly but surely falling for the traps they've set reflects a "damned if I do, damned if I don't" dynamic to the interaction, as Isaak's narrator knows that something is bound to happen between them no matter how hard he tries to prevent it.

From its first moments, "Wicked Game" is haunting: it opens with guitarist James Calvin Wilsey playing the incredibly unstable interval of a tritone between B and F, before bending upward to a consonant fifth in F-sharp. Even with the quick resolution, the opening dissonance lingers over the rest of the track. To me, it represents the doubt and aforementioned conflict faced by the narrator, while its resolution and Wilsey's further dancing around chords that follows embody the narrator's acceptance of the situation because he is unable to do much else in the moment.

Once Wilsey sets the tone for the song, Isaak solidifies it with his hushed vocals, vacillating between embracing and bemoaning his love. In his lower register he gives me hints of the similarly plaintive and down-to-earth Nick Drake, whose song "Parasite" I discussed a few weeks back. On the upper end of his range, Isaak's otherworldly falsetto brings about comparisons to Roy Orbison, a very apt one when also considering Isaak's inspirations ranging back to Orbison's heyday in the 50s. The lyrics also resemble some of Orbison's passionate numbers, though Isaak opted for an approach with even greater internal conflict. The opening two lines, "The world was on fire and no one could save me but you / It's strange what desire will make foolish people do," set the lyrical foundation with a focus on attraction and Isaak's narrator's simultaneous acknowledgment of his foolishness. The parallels in the next line further both these aspects by framing the love as being too good to be true: "I never dreamed that I'd meet somebody like you / And I never dreamed that I'd lose somebody like you."

In the aftermath of this loss comes the simple, yet soaring chorus: "No, I don't wanna fall in love (x2) / With you (x2)." The momentary emotional high is numbed by the narrator realizing what's really happening and trying to avoid the inevitable heartbreak that will follow. It's an arc that makes too much sense considering the song's inspiration from a late-night call Isaak received, and how he knew the decision to go through with the proposition was poor to the point that he penned the song almost instantly following the call. This understanding is further reflected in the faint, ghostly background vocals during the chorus: "This world is only gonna break your heart." It's a sound and a thought that is only audible when one listens hard enough in the present moment, and that is the true wickedness in the titular wicked game: that the attraction the song describes never feels like a bad idea until it's too late, and you're already too deep into it. Isaak's second verse follows this realization, and all he can do is look back and attempt to lay all the blame on the other party — "What a wicked game to play, to make me feel this way / What a wicked thing to do, to let me dream of you" — when he knows he too is culpable. The song has reflected the journey to this point, with its slow progression from its discordant opening to the listener being lulled into a sense of peace, to the emotional climax of Isaak attempting to back away from the tryst... in vain.

Just like its sound, the release and success of "Wicked Game" was a slow burn. The song came out in June 1989 as part of Isaak's album Heart Shaped World, but it took a year and a half for it to become a massive hit. The catalyst was David Lynch's 1990 film Wild at Heart, starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern; after seeing the movie, Atlanta radio DJ Lee Chesnut began playing the song on his station, and it quickly caught fire and spread across both domestic and foreign airwaves. Having not seen Wild at Heart, I decided to look up the scene in which it was used... and wow, does it fit the nighttime drive scene in which the instrumental to Isaak's tune is heard. It's the sort of image I had in my head, and it only enhances how I hear the song now.

I find "Wicked Game" fascinating because of how it mixes inspiration from mid-century popular music with such a modern inspiration through the encounter on which Isaak based the number. Thematically, it seems to have paved the way for many of the 'love songs' which followed in its wake, through its honestly tragic tale of a hopeless romantic narrator only realizing the mistakes they've made when it's too late. In the process, the narrator and the listener alike wonder who's really at fault for the titular 'game,' if they even view it as one: themselves, the other party, or the world at large that just seems to be playing trick after trick on them.

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