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Review: Chris Isaak, 'First Comes The Night'

Note: NPR's audio for First Listens comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Cover art for <em>First Come The Night.</em>
Macfly Corp / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Cover art for First Come The Night.

Chris Isaak's voice is a bit like the Tardis in Dr. Who. Sturdy but nimble, always recognizable, it moves through pop's time-space continuum, transporting listeners to different vantage points while in pursuit of certain eternal questions. Though most haunted by and profiting from an association with Roy Orbison's wail, Isaak is actually a sly stylist who touches upon many sources: 1920s crooners, Rat Pack-era Dean Martin, Mexican conjunto music, the wilder strains of the L.A. troubadour sound. And of course, his voice has spent a great deal of time in Tennessee, sometimes evoking the countrypolitan purr of Jim Reeves, at other times going for a sound (and in 2011, a whole album, Beyond The Sun) straight out of Memphis.

For First Comes The Night, his 13th studio album, Isaak settled not just his pipes but his entire frame into some of Nashville's most notable studios — not to make a country album, but to refresh his time machine's control panel by working with some of the genre's most gifted technicians. Paul Worley, who's guided bands like the Dixie Chicks and Lady Antebellum, produced seven tracks; Dave Cobb, hot right now for his work with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, helmed two. (More by both will be available on the album's deluxe edition.) Isaak, who rounded out the Southern sessions with his regular band and producer Mark Needham, also sat in writers' rooms with notables like Natalie Hemby and Michelle Branch, gaining new perspectives on his favorite theme of twisted, torn, tormenting desire. These new connections suit Isaak, who has the conviction to remain grounded and the confidence to keep ever-so-subtly shifting his view.

One thing that's different on First Comes The Night is Isaak's singing. With one of the most solid rhythm sections in rock and an endlessly clever lead guitarist in Hershel Yatovitz, Isaak has a strong base that doesn't confine him. Still deliciously viscous in quieter moments and rousingly grand when he takes a verse to the max, the 59-year-old's tenor has grown rawer, lending his inquiries into heartbreak an air of menace. If his 1989 classic "Wicked Game" froze sexual enthrallment in yuppie amber, Isaak is now much freer in his expressions of angst. The meanness of "Please Don't Call," the playful plaintiveness of the Latin-tinged "Don't Break My Heart" and the gentle reflectiveness of "The Way Things Really Are" all benefit from Isaak's years of experience, as well as the worn edge in his tone. He can still sing like a dream, but Isaak's gotten better at capturing nightmares.

While the question of what happens after the last kiss remains Isaak's main lyrical focus, he also shows his famous wit in romps like "Running Down The Road" and the Roger Miller-like "Down In Flames." Best of all might be the Dylan-esque roadhouse blues "Insects," which finds both humor and a kind of Zen peace in the midst of romantic regret. "Bad ideas are like insects on the windshield of my mind," Isaak snarls. But he keeps driving — there's always another scene to inhabit, another love to lose.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.