Music Reviews

Neko Case Hell-On

(Anti-) Rating - 8/10

A palpable sense of tenacity and purpose fills the otherwise dark contours of Hell-On. But it wasn't a hearty transition for Neko Case, whose last solo album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, dealt with difficult issues like depression and parental alienation.  During the recording of Hell-On in late 2017, her farm in Vermont caught fire, an unfortunate event that caused some distress considering she had to compromise her privacy. It was a significant setback for Case, one which she recognized but saw as a minor nuisance in the larger scheme of things. Up to that point, the prolific singer-songwriter had been busy working on both a New Pornographers record and her surprising partnership with Laura Veirs and K.D. Lang. It would've been a move devoid of a significant narrative, but as it is with the effects of an uncontrollable fire, the new material she was working on was going to take a potent, more ferocious bearing.

Despite her dogged determination, Case tends to write about herself from an outsider's perspective. There are many lines to draw within Hell-On's prickly allegories, stories about women that unravel with open resistance and quiet tragedy. Often, the messaging is abstract, yet forceful - on the misty folk-rock of Halls of Sarah, she shines the spotlight on a female entertainer whose mystique is imposed by the power of "Men who build their industries around you." On the waltzing steps of the title track, her voice takes an unusually roughened timbre as she rightfully takes claim of her own authority: "And me, I am not a mess / I am a wilderness, yes." Case balances that despair with respect and admiration, where instead of fueling resentment, she gives a voice to women who are needlessly misunderstood with a kind of fictional veracity.

Sometimes, she reveals those unflinching realities with haunting effect - on the serrated, Brill Building-inspired pop of My Uncle's Navy, she paints a portrait of an implicitly dominant man who wouldn't have it any other way: "His name was a command that cuts the ears off fightin' dogs / Then wipes the knife on his militia pants." But Case also welcomes some casual levity, like on the strummy, anthemic stroll of Last Lion of Albion, where she uses countless imagery to satiate her vengeance: "Last lion of Albion / they'll use you for centuries to come / Your wounds the main road into London." Which also provides insight into Case's inescapable humor, like in the Voices Carry-resembling Gumball Blue - written with longtime New Pornographers collaborator A.C. Newman - which details the waning fatigue of a disintegrating relationship: "Shipwreck in my lap / Sorry stained my mouth gumball blue."

Hell-On may take a more cohesive direction when it's sympathetic to its characters, but the same cannot be said for the different musical deviations it takes. Case may constrict her songwriting to more traditional structures, but she - alongside bandmember Paul Rigby - wrings some crisis into her darkly-tinged songs. Casting aside the previously mentioned explorations into eighties and sixties pop, both of which inhabit the brighter and gloomier ends of the spectrum, most of Hell-On transforms with a genre-less fluidity. Most surprising is the absence of country twang altogether, though when it's there - like in the reflective, seven-minute Curse of the I-5 Corridor, where she duets with alt-rock mainstay Mark Lanegan - it becomes the album's epic, Led Zeppelin in scope centerpiece. These changes in color are essential to its overall framework, though there are the occasional missteps: the shanty-like Oracle of the Maritimes never really unfolds into its promised, grandiose conclusion, and the other sixties ode on the album, Bad Luck, lacks a rhythmic pattern to match its incandescent melody.

On Hell-On, Case once again spins the roulette with a treasury of surprises, stimulating lessons that are complex, thoughtful and articulate. Fifteen years into her solo career, she continues to bring forth subjects that demand to not only be heard, but also applied, and yet it's always strictly tailored into the fabric of actual songs. Hell-On is yet another perceptive unraveling, a worthy document that leads us through her many moods - sometimes she's tough, but her likability on record always shines through, and though the topics she presents aren't easy to swallow they should as hell should. And maybe that's the fire she suggests - the ugliness of humanity tends to prevail, and now, more than ever, it's necessary to call it out even louder.