Release Date: Jun 1, 2018
Record label: Epitaph
Neko Case is an artist incapable of sounding like anyone other than Neko Case. She's certainly not adverse to collaborating with artists she respects; she's been a long-time participant in the New Pornographers, and has contributed her estimable vocal talents to albums by Calexico, John Doe, Kelly Hogan, and Giant Sand, among others. But on 2016's case/lang/veirs, an album she recorded in tandem with k.d.
Much like her creative peers, Neko Case 's music has always encompassed elements of moody, dark, and perturbed folk, aberrantly blended with an Americana twang and a bit of an outlaw attitude. On her eighth studio album -- and first self-produced -- it comes as a surprise when Case's typical tropes of heartbroken Spaghetti Western love songs have grown to grander arrangements, more focused on audial stimulation than crafting any sort of mood. The kicker? Hell-On is one of Case's moodiest solo records to date.
Neko Case's clarion pipes remain the calling card, but on her 8th studio LP, between lyrics and vocal arrangements, they've never channeled more imagination or sense of purpose. A set of rangy folk-rock, per usual, Hell-On is attuned to the disasters of the moment; it opens pondering the nature of God (alternately described as "an unspecified tide" and "a lusty tire fire"), and moves forward to cast shade on patriarchy ("Halls Of Sarah"). But the set hits its stride dissecting love - most dazzlingly on "Winnie," a gender-corrected sailor's reverie framed as ecstatic choral folk-rock with help from the Gossip's Beth Ditto ("joy ran through us like welders flux/We just wanted to be music!") and "Sleep All Summer," a cover of Crooked Fingers' shoulda-been-a-hit power ballad with songwriter (and Case's former bandmate) Eric Bachmann, with its ghostly echoes of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind.
It’s been just under five years since Neko Case released her last solo album, the unwieldy titled but brilliant The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. Yet it feels like she’s never been away – as well as appearing on two albums with her band The New Pornographers since 2013, she was also partly responsible for one of the best records of recent times in her collaboration with kd lang and Laura Veirs. There’s a collaborative feel to much of Hell-On as well – there are guest vocal spots from Veirs and lang, together with appearances from Robert Forster of The Go-Betweens, Beth Ditto, Mark Lanegan, and Archers Of Loaf‘s Eric Bachmann.
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.
Following on from 2016's largely glorious three-way collaboration with Laura Veirs and k. d. lang, the sometimes voice of Canadian indie supergroup The New Pornographers has returned with an album that steers her ever further away from pure country and ever closer to the kind of perfect chamber pop currently harvested by the likes of Eleanor Friedberger or Andrew Bird.
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.
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.
Neko Case wants to write songs that can't be tamed. Even her hookiest tunes come with twists and turns that clearly didn't crib from the pop songwriting rule book. "Hell-On" (Anti-), her seventh studio album and first in five years, is among her catchiest albums and also one of the most elusive and allusive, full of yearning for a planet that is leaking mystery like a punctured balloon.