Review Summary: be careful of the natural world
When Neko Case – singer, songwriter, producer, elemental commander – tells us her voice isn’t “liquid waves,” and is instead “garroting wire” on the eponymous first song of her new solo album, Hell-On
, your first instinct is simply to not believe her. But then you remember that “perfect” or pretty
is not quite the same as, say, slicing through the wilderness like a bell, conjuring the spirits, and blazing like an assured Mother Nature conduit
. Because for all the imperfections of Case’s voice or sound, she has carved out a very impressive niche for herself by now. What started out as a country-type thing has become a what-the-hell-is-this-type-thing, which is never truer than on this 7th album album (or eighth if you count her live album The Tigers Have Spoken
). And whatever it is, it is gorgeous, titanic, and moving in its own very Neko Case way.
has been widely touted as her most dense and diverse album, and that is not a farfetched idea. When you think of albums like Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
or Middle Cyclone
, there’s a general sonic and stylistic consistency across their runtimes. Even her wonderful collaborative album with kd lang and Laura Veirs, case/lang/veirs
, had a tone and mood that was more or less carried through; a palette that remained within its own zone. Hell-On
, while nowhere near the all-over-the-place smorgasbord some might be claiming it is, is denser, more expansive, varied, and even less predictable than her past albums tended to be.
The title track is lilting, eerie, wordy without feeling labored, and exists in at least three very different phases. The second track, "Last Lion of Albion", is a peppy, incredibly catchy pop rock track, which sounds like one of the best songs The New Pornographers never made. The just-off-kilter drum beat and the soaring chorus are sticky and bright. “Halls of Sarah” is a melancholy, starlit ballad, gorgeous in its plaintive acoustic first half and towering in its surprising second half. “Bad Luck” almost has a girl group style to it, with a sort of blackly comedic vibe despite its dark lyrics. And “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” is a 7-minute epic; a road of memories shot through a hazy dream, accompanied by Mark Lanegan’s gravel-borne voice. And that’s just the first five songs.
Despite all this unpredictable stylistic shifting (sometimes midsong), Hell-On
does feel of a piece with itself. But even beside all that, it is just so well-written and performed that it easily slots itself into position as one of Case’s best albums. It also features some of her sharpest, darkest lyrics. “Oracle of the Maritimes” includes a verse so good I had to replay it twice on first listen: “Sometimes I feel so ugly / I'm afraid / Worry nesting in my hair / Shedding like a christmas tree / Surely there's a real woman / Coming to erase me.” It doesn't hurt that her voice on that last line bellows and belts with a destructive force. It’s somehow otherworldly, frightening, and moving all at once.
“My Uncle’s Navy” is perhaps the most upsetting of them all; a thrilling rumination on the kind of memories that “wear long coats” and “weigh you down… choke you out.” Those memories revolve around a nightmarish account of her uncle (who she quickly assures us was “not by blood”), who ripped heads of snakes to scare little kids, and probably a slew of other unspeakable things. Toward the end, Case – a lyricist known for being profoundly poetic, often even quite oblique – tosses us a clearcut bone: “And I hated those who gave him access / To our days / The ones who did nothin' / I still can't love them.” It’s chilling, and even more so considering how catchy the track is.
Case has never been one to shy away from dark or slightly uncommon song topics. “Halls of Sarah,” one of the most beautiful songs she’s ever composed, ponders on all the women who have been sung about through music history, usually without their consent. "Dirty Diamond" almost sounds like it's taking us back to prehistoric times. “Winnie” seems to follow a dream or a fictional story (she tells us as much in the unreliable-narrator opening line: “I’m here to tell you a story / I’m here to tell you a lie”) about a female sea captain who catches her narrator’s eye and heart. The final lines where she is “Slowly blurring into” Winnie is one of the album’s simplest, loveliest moments.
The album isn’t without its issues, though they do feel like minor gripes. “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” is a bit overlong, with its run-on lyrical lines growing a little stale, even when its instrumental is engaging and dramatic. And “Sleep All Summer,” a duet with Eric Bachmann (and actually a cover of his own song), feels slightly too tilted in his direction. His voice is thick and humid and, sort of like Case’s, imperfectly beautiful, but it actually almost sounds like his is mixed higher, or louder. That being said, it’s a damned gorgeous duet, washing over us; a bit of a cleanser before the final two tracks. Aside from that though, Hell-On
is pretty spotless. It takes a bit longer than some of her others to reveal its secrets, but getting lost in its hall of mirrors is a wild ride. It’s an intriguing, sharp, deeply moving record, and once it ingrains itself into your head, it’s hard to get it out – and you don’t really want it to leave, either.
Key Tracks: Halls of Sarah, Oracles of the Maritimes, Winnie, My Uncle's Navy