Zoom out from the music industry and things are a little shaky. The best rappers in the world are trading blows, career-length collaborators are uncovering each others’ nasty secrets, and very few new records receive divisive reviews. Zoom in to the releases that hit us this past Friday, and it’s even more of a head-scratcher. In a wonderful act of industry savvy, this is the time Neko Case hits us with Hell-On - a record that opens with a foreboding tale, but unravels into a piece of art that reminds us why it’s still fashionable to be a songwriter.
Case comes off as a big music fan like the rest of us, describing the feeling she used to get when hearing “reverb leaking out of tavern doors.” But, the mystery of those experiences she had as an up-and-comer are decades gone. Throughout the album’s sprawling centerpiece, 'Curse of the I-5 Corridor,' she laments the loss of youth: “I fear I smell extinction in the folds of this novocaine age coming on.”
But this isn’t an album about grief. Even during the depths of tearjerker 'Oracle of the Maritimes,' we see Neko Case with grand perspective on what she’s been through and what’s left to come. “That’s no way to tell you how much I could love you/because I’ve never been so sure of anything/let go of my hand/and pass me an oar,” she screams at full volume. Here’s hard evidence that her voice last lost none of its bite in the 5 years since her last proper album.
Case never boasts about the beauty in her vocal. On the title track, she creeps around a foreboding mbira and admits “my voice is straight garroting wire/A stolen mile of fingerprints.” Sung in a lament such as this, it’s difficult to grasp how positive you’re left feeling at its end. The dry bite of the song is such a pure way to open a record, and bears similarities to Laura Marling’s “Soothing,” which kicked off her most recent record in a big way.
Things get prettier on 'Last Lion of Albion'. A double-snare pattern propels the song forward, and culminates in a chorus worthy of Case classics like 'Star Witness'. The difference here is some studio inventiveness from new collaborator Bjorn Yttling: Case mimics a simple keyboard line in the choruses before it swallows her part whole. It’s not as if we were tired of hearing her words, but the addition is proof that Case and Yttling understand the give and take necessary for a punchy vocal. Closer 'Pitch or Honey' breaks down her process even more as she explains how a song can make you feel happy and sad at the same time: “I use major chords to make the saddest song/an effective manipulation/moonlight reflected is many times stronger.”
Even 'Bad Luck', the album’s most joyous moment, is an ode to misfortune. Fresh off last year’s collaborative case/lang/veirs, Case hits you over the head with an emphasis on hooks. After the sober 'Halls of Sarah', 'Bad Luck' is a functional mood lifter even if it is hyper-produced and boomingly loud. But even the album’s middle section, a string of songs with only hidden hooks, manages to hold your attention without candy-coating the songs. “Gumball Blue” in particular saves its coup de grace for the ending where Case, k.d. Lang, Kelly Hogan, and Nora O’Connor all shout in New Pornographers glee, and 'Dirty Diamond' flexes a fat drum pattern for a mere 3 phrases before ending. Case was holding many cards in her hand, and knew where to play almost all of them.
There’s so much to touch on with every lyric here, it gets exhausting towards record's end. Still, what remains throughout most of these tunes is a clear-eyed vision of someone who has reason to be so loved. But, she’s barely ankle-deep in her own ego unlike the narcissists that absorb the glut of our attention. Even after so many successful records, Case remains puzzled by the sway she has over people: “When strangers say ‘I love you’/you’re banished to a planet with no sounds,” she sings during the crescendo of “Gumball Blue” with a small hint of self-remorse, once again proving that she’s a real human being and not the untouchable deity depicted on the artwork.
Even when buried in the thick metaphors of Hell-On, she’s gracefully tuned in to her own music and not the world around it. Although this song kicks off the record so well, it’s an obtuse look back once “Pitch or Honey” rolls out the album’s final notes. It’s unclear what the message is behind the title. Regardless, if Case simply wanted to name the record after it because she was so fond of it, that’s quite alright. We are guests in her world, after all, and Hell-On is precisely the breezy rock record we may need right now. If you need proof, any of the 12 tracks here will suffice.