Neko Case turns an eye on humanity – its cruelties and its kindnesses – on her new solo record, ‘Hell-On’.
In the five years since Neko Case’s last album, her Vermont home burned to the ground. It happened so recently, in fact, that the original cover art plan for Hell-On was changed to depict Case, hair full of cigarettes, burning away. The fire was a devastating loss for someone who, despite her fame, is a very private person. In an interview with Pitchfork, she revealed her feminist rage at the men who wouldn’t take her request for privacy seriously, and discussed finishing the album amidst the stress of attempting to regroup – she recorded the upbeat “Bad Luck” the morning after the fire. In a triumphant return, Neko Case has put out an album that feels like a release – in many ways, a distillation of her entire career up to this point.
Listen: ‘Hell-On’ – Neko Case
Neko Case has been a prolific figure in the landscape of alt-country and indie-rock – though she frequently defies genre and eschews past styles. She remains a vital member of Canadian band The New Pornographers, and has seen collaborations with an eclectic lineup of musicians. case/lang/veirs (her collaborative record with K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs) was released in 2017. On that, she speaks of the birth of a newfound appreciation for collaboration, which is clear in Hell-On’s liner notes. In the long expanse of her career, she’s shifted and evolved. Long gone are her “Honkey Tonk Hiccups” days; even the gale of Furnace Room Lullaby seems distant.
Over the years, she’s traded Virginia twang for a darker sound – one rife with low, unsettling country-Western guitars, the girlish lilt now smooth. Hell-On finds itself squarely in the middle of her range of styles and sounds. 2013’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You was weary and heavy – she had suffered losses in her family and her grief came through deeply in her music. Hell-On shares some of this weariness, but there’s a return to the dark whimsy of Blacklisted, the melodrama of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, and the subtle nuances of Middle Cyclone. Here, there is a returned sense of vitality.
Hell-On begins with a distorted music box melody, the kind you might hear in a horror movie. It’s a familiar move for Case, who frequently employs sounds from vintage pianos and even Happy Apples. The first time her voice emerges, she announces, “God is not a contract, or a guy,” with such matter-of-factness that you wonder if you heard her right. Her voice is calm, placid, even hushed. What was once an unbridled belt, like you find on Blacklisted’s “Deep Red Bells,” has been tamed. There is a dryness here, with none of the reverb of past albums. As the second verse begins, Case turns her attention from God to herself:
My voice is not the liquid waves
The perfect rings ’round a heron’s legs
My voice a straight garroting wire
A stolen mile of fingerprints
Peeled up quiet from their dunes
Captured and re-spooled as ruin
To be used at a different time
As she says it, it becomes true. Her voice is ruinous. She wields it with certainty and intent – a voice that draws you in effortlessly. The song builds into a sudden major key shift, Case repeating one of her equally ruinous one-liners: “Nothing quite so poison as a promise.” Case’s attention, as it has so often been, is turned on man and his cruelties. The album is threaded through with cruelty. There is a certain sense of violence that seeps through her melodies and lyrics, like on “My Uncle’s Navy,” where she details an uncle “not by blood” who terrorized neighborhood children and animals. The most striking moment in the song comes as Case posits:
I never wondered
what made him that way
Bullies are not born,
they’re pressed into a form
There is darkness and cynicism here. And yet, there is beauty present too. Songs like “Halls of Sarah” and “Gumball Blue” (co-written with New Pornographers bandmate A.C. Newman) have an aching sweetness to them. They feature a longing for connection among the chaos of human cruelty – the first line of Gumball Blue goes, “So sorry for the trouble, the times we’ve been afraid of each other, ’cause we didn’t understand.” The song pulses with 80s style synths and a nostalgic edge. “‘Sorry’ stained my mouth gumball blue,” she croons, layering her signature close harmonies on top of herself. In the swaying duet she shares with Eric Bachmann, the desire for connection amidst the sometimes cruel ways humans treat each other comes to a head:
Cold ways kill cool lovers
Strange ways we use each other
Why won’t you fall back in love with me?
There ain’t no way we’re gonna find another
The way we sleep all summer
Why won’t you fall back in love with me?
The themes of the album move from micro to macro and back again, with Case centered as the storytelling siren. Her songs are incredibly detailed, often lofty in scope. Her cryptic metaphors and fables swell into view like the memory a hot summer night – she sings limpidly on “Winnie,” “I want to be your sailor’s tattoo.” It’s a detail so fine and sharp, so easy to visualize, that you don’t feel alienated when she sings about “the dawn of man, when we got along” on “Dirty Diamond.” Case always seems at once repelled by the world and fascinated by its wonders. The combination of her raw vocal power and storytelling ability make her an unparalleled force in music. It seems a unique skill to make an album about cruelty that still rings with so much hope. She’s adept at atmosphere like no one else, and Hell-On is filled with it. It’s a hugely collaborative album, but Case is the one in charge. It’s her through and through, from the fact that she chose to self-produce, to her signature melodies and lyrics. In Case’s world, it is always dusk, and something sharp is on the wind.
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📸 © Emily Shur