Neko Case – Hell On (Anti- )

Neko Case has a new album full of irony and depreciation. “God is not a contract or a guy,” claims Case in her opening salvo, Hell On. Oh no. “God is a lusty tire fire.”  What utterly brilliant nonsense.

That’s the best soundbite I ever heard!  It’s what Case does so brilliantly.  Creating quotes that are bizarre, poignant and twisted.  “Nothing quite so poison as a promise,”  she claims.  So is that what she intended for this album? You need to listen more deeply to find that out!

Most of us know Neko Case from her time in the New Pornographers and on the wonderful 2016 album case/lang/viers which showed everyone what a great singer-songwriter she could be.  But don’t write her off as yet another Americana or alt-country act.  She’s capable of a deeper cannon of writing, and she has the backstory to support it.  Most recently, her Vermont home was destroyed by fire.  She’s been haunted by stalkers. So you’d expect her to be cynical ‘and grave. Not so.  Unlike her last effort The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You (2013), which was a more solo project, her new album has a collaborative spirit to it.  Even though it’s still pretty personal – and sometimes downright grumpy-mad!

She’s managed to recruit old bandmate, New Pornographers’ keyboardist John Collins to jazz up the stark but space-fiction ‘feel’ on the title track.  And apparently, Beth Ditto is on this one but in the sparseness of the delivery that’s not really obvious.

Speaking of collaborators, this album has the production talents of Bjorn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn & John.  The thing was mixed in Stockholm, possibly in a kitsch satin-lined log cabin with adjoining sauna?  You have to wonder. He’s also the mastermind behind flavours in the lusty, soapy single, Bad Luck, alongside others.  Yttling has a knack for creating that ‘fizzy’ 80’s retro atmosphere.  Yet Case’s lyrics remind me more of Morrisette’s 90’s classic Ironic, with its twists in the story, like her reference to sitting on the fence, undecided about marriage: “I chipped my tooth on an engagement ring, I could have stopped anyone of these things.”  Is it real or paste?  Do you want to marry or not? Is that good news or bad news?  Is the dilemma the bad luck?

Gumball Blue is more rough and angular but it’s also a quantum.  This time following Kristin Hersh’s template it’s a sort of psychedelic kitchen sink drama. I loved her self-loathing and irony on this one.

Time and again Case uses irony and contrast, such as on the poetic and stately, yet deprecating Last Lion of Albion.  The tune My Uncle’s Navy begins with a storm of agro-guitar then fades to subtle recline and calm.  Carrying on the nautical theme is Oracle of the Maritimes, which is all about modern insecurities, albeit in a mystic daydream land where “sometimes I feel so ugly”.  This is what makes a portentous ballad, I think.

Case is too clever by half.  No doubt about it.  She doesn’t really explain why she’s wearing a wreath of cigarettes on the cover but it does have a sort of echo of ‘lost masculinity’ about the flavour.  Sort of a hark back to Mad Men days and all the sexism and dis-empowerment that went with it.  Perhaps this is her version of neo-feminism?  “I’ve always been [a feminist], it’s just not something I was comfortable calling myself because I didn’t fully understand it… but now I get it,” She said in The NY Times.  I believe her.

Not all the songs are potential man-haters though.  Her duets with Mark Lanegan and Eric Bachmann (Archers of Loaf, Crooked Fingers), seem almost contemplative.  Especially on the Crooked Fingers’ cover Sleep All Summer.  She calls it an elegy for a dead relationship.  That works nicely.

The big power tune, Curse of the I-5 Corridor, clocks in at over 7 minutes, drawing heavily on the lost memories now strewn all the way down the hi-way from Canada to Mexico.  Its epic finish is worth the trip.

It would be easy to dismiss this as an album of modern folk.  Sure there is folk making music but that’s where it ends.  These are more like tiny compositions for a fragmented musical.  I’m not sure if I really like it or not.  I’ll need more time to decide.  But with each listen I feel more uneasy and yet more comfortable.  Was that intentional?

Tim Gruar