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Neko Case - Hell-On Music Album Reviews

Neko Case - Hell-On Music Album Reviews
On her self-produced seventh solo LP, Neko Case brings on a bunch of collaborators for a dense album that searches for connection amid human cruelty and chaos.

For all of Neko Case’s masterfully delivered tales of killer animals and sentient weather patterns, her decades of work have revealed an increasingly human worldview where mercy is shown only to those who deserve it. She sings of bloodshed and mystery and revenge, but in her albums there are also pleas for basic compassion that are intimate and deeply felt. “I’m a man,” she sang in a definitive lyric from her strikingly personal album from 2013, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight. “It’s what kind of animal I am.”

Five years later, Case returns with Hell-On, her most collaborative release to date, featuring pop producer Björn Yttling (of Peter, Bjorn and John), gruff-voiced alt-rock veterans Mark Lanegan and Eric Bachmann, and bandmates from the New Pornographers and case/lang/veirs (k.d. Lang and Laura Veirs). The added company is felt throughout: No other album in her catalog is so musically rich and orchestrated. Its eclectic nature sometimes takes the spotlight from Case’s inimitable alto—usually the central force of her records—but it also highlights the unmistakable identity of her writing. As the scenery shifts, Case spends these songs siphoning wisdom from horror and searching for connection amid human cruelty and chaos. “Be careful of the natural world,” she cautions in the opening title track. You’d be wise to take her advice.

If there’s a theme running through the record’s dense, disparate tracks, it’s confronting primal fears head-on. In a deceptively upbeat song called “My Uncle’s Navy,” she includes a trigger warning: “If you’re tender-hearted, you should stop the tape.” Then, she recounts an early trauma about a relative mutilating animals to scare young girls. Case revisits the scene from various angles, questioning the adults who could have stopped him and analyzing the way sadism evolves when left unchecked. “Bullies are not born, they are pressed into a form,” she reflects. What remains so disturbing to her isn’t the violence so much as the way it can be imposed upon us, without consent or explanation, at a formative age.

Hell-On doesn’t carry the autobiographical precision of The Worse Things Get. Its songs are knottier and more elliptical. While more uptempo tracks like the righteous “Last Lion of Albion” and the loping dust storm of “Dirty Diamond” lack the effortless drive of her old power-pop numbers, they make up for it in texture. Hell-On’s many moving parts invoke a wide palette of fragmented follow-up albums: the arrangements on Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk that sounded like three different bands playing (and breaking up) at once; the moments on Destroyer’s Poison Season that seemed pieced together from shattered remains of pop standards. Hell-On is a record that can feel equally fragile and impenetrable, its songs like complex universes connected only by proximity.

Case’s gift as a songwriter has long been her ability to burrow small moments into your consciousness: She finds resonance in simple, ambiguous phrases—“I’m free to covet all I please,” “You never held it at the right angle”—where other artists build hooks out of their most universal insights. Here, these mystifying lines come packed together more tightly in songs that rarely cover the same ground twice. At some point during the nautical waltz of “Winnie,” Beth Ditto comes center stage to sing the most triumphant chorus to ever appear on a Neko Case record—the aural equivalent of a celebratory group hug after a decathlon. “We were warriors,” she belts with just the right amount of ceremony. But that melody never recurs, and by the end of the song, Case is back alone at the microphone singing in a quiet, mournful coo. Stories are more exciting, she discovers, when every part is not treated like its climax.

During the recording of Hell-On, Case endured a series of calamities. First, her house burned down. (Thankfully, no one—including the myriad animals she cares for—was injured.) Next, a journalist included her name and address in a news report about the fire: a terrifying prospect, considering Case was dealing with a stalker at the time. These events are never addressed directly in the lyrics, but the ongoing struggle darkens the record. Feelings of fear and exhaustion seep through nearly every song. On a previous album, the karmic apocalypse in “Bad Luck,” with its punchline, “So I died and went to work,” might be a moment of levity. Here, it sprawls uneasily and cycles through peppy, crowded verses that start to feel like a compulsion. In other tracks, she gives the microphone over entirely to her accompanists, retreating momentarily in their presence. “You are beautiful and you are alone,” went a borrowed mantra on her last album. Hell-On takes the opposite angle: As ugly as things get, at least we have each other.

With this outlook, Case is empowered. In the dazzling ballad “Halls of Sarah,” she sings, “Our poets do an odious business loving womankind/As lions love Christians.” Through these songs, she attempts to correct the poets, scavenging for what she refers to as “the warmth of your species,” some common kindness uniting us. While writing this record, Case took inspiration from Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, a thoroughly researched book that offers proof of a long-ignored civilization. Hell-On, with its embattled stories and restless spirit, comforts by offering a similar affirmation: The myth is all the more beautiful and strange if it’s real.

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