Master of Suspense

Hell-On is the latest aural thriller from Neko Case.

Neko Case performs at Fox Theater on April 13, 2017 in Oakland, California.
Neko Case performs at Fox Theater on April 13, 2017 in Oakland, California.
Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic

Neko Case is a master of musical suspense. Yes, lyrically her aesthetic has always had a broad streak of Pacific Coast noir, a fog-enfolded, Twin Peaks–like sense that there are owls in the pines who know where the graves are concealed and dangerously forgetful, stubbled men in nearby cabins who keep digging more. But that’s not the kind of suspense I mean. It’s that the structures of her songs often appear to meander, as if she’s simply free-associating. But then the tune will suddenly turn a corner into an anthemic shout. Or stop short all vulnerable and exposed. Or stretch out towards the sun with galloping drums and five-part harmonies. And when the song has seemed to settle into that new form, it will pivot again. Case’s open mossy fields of melody are salted with detonators for harmonic explosives. After more than 20 years, listeners may be conditioned to expect the twists, but they’ll still never predict what they’ll be.

Case’s latest, Hell-On, is another of her aural thrillers. The mysteries, the jump scares, are all just more passages of exquisite music—well, along with a few truer-to-life terrors such as mass extinctions, misogyny, the oil industry, child endangerment, and above all, memory, whether personal or historic. Everyone she’s met, every past self, alter ego, figure she’s read about, and any beast that runs, crawls, swims, or flies seems curled within her, waiting to emerge through her flexing throat. Her work has become more autobiographical and occasionally polemical this decade, as she’s come into middle age ever more unashamed of her own hurt and rage. Hurt and rage over the Tacoma, Washington, Ukrainian-immigrant family that was too impoverished and maladjusted to take proper care of her. Over the male stalkers she’s had to squander her never-ample savings staving off in court—when her Vermont farmhouse burned down last year while she was away recording, she publicly denied it at first to safeguard her privacy. And over the threats to the world of wilderness and animals that she adores, a jeopardy her songs often align with the suffering and solidarity of women. But Case’s songs never narrow to simple attack or complaint. Her symbolic imagination, her insatiable ears, her restless identity, and all her hauntings make sure of that.

Between songs as much as within them, her albums unpredictably move between genres and vocabularies, from music-box waltz to glittery glam and stomp, from sorrowful philosophy to caustic comedy to manifestos for a gender coup. But it’s in that variety of modes that her consistency lies. That and the fact that her lonesome mesa of a voice remains unmistakable whether it’s hushed or howling: She found her mature tone, in every sense, with the stylistic breakthrough of 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, although she never gives up testing its range. Still, the suspense is maintained by the gaps between her solo releases: It’s been five years since The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. And that came four years after 2009’s Middle Cyclone. In between, she might record and tour with her longtime musical surrogate family, Vancouver’s retro-power-prog ensemble the New Pornographers, or with new collaborators (as on 2016’s Case/Lang/Veirs), or withdraw to her country retreat for spells.

That pattern might partly explain how Case can have been so widely heralded for so long, so much that it feels redundant to pile on adjectives, and yet still seem somehow neglected, left to the side of the pantheon. One cause is sexist bias, yes, but it intersects with her unique Neko-ness. Musically she’s neither pop nor anti-pop, and she’s not easily contained by categories such as indie or Americana. Her influence on other artists is hard to track because no one could mimic her sensibility and personality—her mixture of Eastern European folk-tale mysticism and urban-periphery proletariat saltiness, of torchy romanticism and misanthropic intellect. As Case sings here on “Oracle of the Maritimes”: “I’m too much for people/ So I gauge and shout my thoughts to you from a distance.” (This comes, mind, right after she’s proclaimed, “And I’m not even wearing underwear/ In no way exotic, I just forgot to.”)

That distance was at its sharpest on The Worse Things Get…, a record very much about isolation and depression, gorgeous and generous as it was. A heartening development on Hell-On is that it feels so populated, clearly her domain as auteur and chief producer but teeming with the presence of her collaborators. Foremost, there are all the women she brings in to sing with her, including Beth Ditto with a dramatic cameo as a kind of Amazonian spirit on “Winnie” (which unfortunately plods a bit up until then), her Case/Lang/Veirs comrades K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs, and her most consistent vocal partners Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor. Case always has engaged fellow musicians to help her finish and arrange her songs (chiefly her band’s guitarist Paul Rigby, who’s credited on eight of these 12 tracks), and here she brings them, as well as new Swedish co-producer Björn Yttling (of Peter, Bjorn and John), further to the fore.

In fact, this record’s two greatest peaks for me, at least so far, are both duets. One is the 7-minute, piano-led pairing with Seattle scene stalwart Mark Lanegan, “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” which sprawls across the calendar and maps of Case’s wayward youth, to both harrowing and consoling effects. The other is the album’s one cover, a song by another guitarist from her backing band, Eric Bachmann, who is better known to a small coterie from his work with the indie bands Crooked Fingers and Arches of Loaf. “Sleep All Summer” was originally a Crooked Fingers song, which Bachmann has sung in duet with his wife Liz Durrett, and it’s also been performed by the National with St. Vincent. But the Hell-On rendition has to stand as the definitive version of this moon-sore love song, with Bachmann’s wounded croon entwining with Case’s most buoyant, chanteuse-style vocal mode through lines such as, “I would change for you, but, babe, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna be a better man/ Gave the ocean what I took from you, so one day you could find it in the sand/ And hold it in your hands again.” If I could remotely imagine how, I would mount a campaign that it be the 2018 song of the summer.

Hell-On also contains Case’s first-ever co-write with her New Pornographers bandmate Carl Newman, “Gumball Blue,” which is seemingly about the band itself: “All the spells we cast without trying … I’ve lived, singing your songs/ Long-legged mazes and English geometry.” Aptly, it ushers the group’s bubblegum–sci-fi sound onto one of Case’s own albums for the first time, with John Collins’ vintage synthesizers lighting up the last parts of the song like a pinball machine.

Even when the album is more Neko-centric, there are spectral companions at her side, whether it’s all the heraldic animals vanishing into brands and commerce on “Last Lion of Albion,” or the women who’ve been reduced to “muses” by innumerable songwriters past on “Halls of Sarah”: “You see, our poets do an odious business/ Loving womankind as lions love Christians.” That song is a fine illustration of Case’s stylistic surprise techniques: It begins as a shimmery acoustic ballad but gets waylaid by the gnarring baritone sax of Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin, and then builds to a fuller band sound that reveals it also as a hidden tribute to one song-about-a-girl’s-name that Case can stand behind, Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara,” with a harpsichord standing in for Stevie Nicks’ tack piano on the original.

Finally, on the closing track, “Pitch or Honey,” Case is kept company by music itself as a kind of cosmic presence, an apparition of the “wild”: “I hear overtones that make this another song/ Out of reach of human hands/ We don’t have control.” Fittingly here the sound builds into a kind of vocal circle dance with Hogan and O’Connor, weaving lines from all the verses together, ending on a kind of exiting blessing, “And may you ever return to the warmth of your species.” For all the reasons of biography and inclination that she chronicles in these songs, this artist will always be, to pun on her name, a singular case, a loner at her core. But despite the many rotten things Hell-On finds on Earth, namely most of humankind, at the very least, with all her fellow musicians and spiritual familiars around her, she can say (with Leonard Cohen, from another problematic song-about-a-girl, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”), “We are ugly, but we have the music.”