Neko Case – Hell-On (Anti)
In the song “Bad Luck,” Neko Case makes a self-deprecating comment about “trying to pass riddles as poetry.” Which is something she’s never done. Because she doesn’t have to.
Last year I wrote a book about Gord Downie. While contemplating his lyrics, I tried to think of other songwriters with a similar sense of oblique wordplay and metaphor—not just people like Bob Dylan or Beck or other obfuscators, but people who were closest to Downie on several levels. I could think of only two: Paul Simon post-Graceland, and Neko Case.
Case is not just an incredible singer (which is obvious) and an evocative sound sculptor as a producer (which is, sadly, not as obvious to most people), but it’s her words that truly set her apart: she is one of those rare songwriters (Joni Mitchell, Vic Chesnutt) who are just as interesting to read on the page as poetry as they are to listen to. Even if the music falters, there is usually a great poem still remaining.
With Case, as her writing gets better, her music becomes less immediate, less obvious. But there are pop songs here, including “Bad Luck” and a cover of the timeless Crooked Fingers ballad, “Sleep All Summer,” which she sings with the song’s composer (and her occasional touring guitarist) Eric Bachmann. There’s a duet with Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age). She cowrites two songs with her New Pornographers bandmate Carl Newman, and co-produces a few tracks with Björn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn and John. Beth Ditto and k.d. lang show up, because Amazonian warriors travel in packs. But make no mistake, Case is not bending in anyone’s direction: Hell-On is full of sad waltzes, rich sonic textures and very few visceral thrills. It’s a heady record, on every level. Read a few interviews with Case, and she’ll send you down wormholes of historical exploration to contextualize her writing, though she’s also more than capable of writing a straight-up narrative (“Curse of the I-5 Corridor”).
“I just wanted to feel music … We just wanted to be music,” she sings on "Winnie." (Echoing, oddly enough, Madeline Kahn as paraphrased by Gord Downie in a 2012 song: "We don't want to do it / we want to be it.") With everything Neko Case does, one can hear every intention behind every note. She doesn’t take her job lightly. Neither should you. (June 8)
Stream: "Sleep All Summer," "Bad Luck," "Winnie"