Neko Case doesn’t do small.
Neko Case doesn’t do small. There’s no need to dabble in the micro when you’ve got the cosmos to channel. With a voice like hers and a poetic eye to match, it would be a waste. But even with six solo albums under her belt, a few stone-cold classics and, of course, that whole New Pornographers thing, Hell-On is still Case’s most raging tempest yet. She doesn’t go big, she goes universal.
Hell-On is cleaved in half, one portion made of the earth and the other the sea. She’s always been a fan of ecology-based metaphors, lashing herself to the bows of ships, turning into a tornado and running with the wolves each album. Perhaps that’s why she’s so concerned with extinction here. She flexes some Indigo Girls magic on “Last Lion of Albion,” with accomplice k.d. lang listing off organisms recently wiped out of history by human overreach. Later she sings “I fear I smell extinction in the folds of this Novacaine age coming on.” “Halls of Sarah,” with its bleak winter palette, slinks forward with Case weaving together multiple narratives and analogies. “Men build their industries around you/ Gathered in withers of your hair,” she coos to Sarah, purposefully obscuring the line between the rights of her muse and the earth.
Appropriately for such twisting tales, the sounds are working on a stage musical’s logic with times, settings and keys suddenly shifting but always feeling fluid and natural. “Gumball Blue” turns from some frightful musings in New York (“bodies buried in Times Square”) into an impossible New Year’s anthem, as rousing as a round of “Auld Lang Syne.” She repeats the trick of making her songs quiver with minor key trappings often, she says as much on closing song “Pitch or Honey,” detailing the meta works behind her music and how they reflect the troubled mind. “Bad Luck,” despite being improbably catchy, (it sounds like Cheap Trick as covered by Jason Isbell) is about as despondent as you can get, with Case cooing “I died and went to work” ad nauseam.
Case has said that Hell-On leans autobiographical, and considering her home burned down during the recording process and that she has dealt with a stalker, it’s impossible not to see her frustrations at humankind’s treatment of the earth as a parallel to how women are treated generally. But she’s still squarely in her “This Tornado Loves You” mode, more comfortable channeling her outpouring emotions through natural phenomenon. It rings a similar tune to Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, though Simpson’s shanties found him tossed and turned by the currents, while Case envisions her body as those riptides.
“Oracle of the Maritimes” certainly runs with rushing, oceanic desperation. She enters a dream over a steely guitar with a fisherman who promises to find “an ocean to that goes with your eyes.” “I asked him how to tell you how much I could love you,” she cries. Despite its relatively normal runtime, it feels like a progressive-rock epic, fit to burst with ideas and tears. “I’m not even wearing underwear/ No exotic/ I just forgot to” might have been a funny punchline, but here it’s deadly serious, Case baring it all as pianos cascade down with the force of a tsunami.
The natural disasters stay, but become more background jitters on “Curse of the I-5 Corridor.” The track has the whiskey croon of Mark Lanegan performing a simple octave duet with Case (full album, please), gently accenting a riveting and intimate night. The I-5 runs from Mexico to the Pacific Northwest, her old stomping grounds, and she’s pouring the first drink with someone who she can’t separate old friend or flame. They use each other as mile-markers, Case accusing him of being a “time traveler” due to an unchanging complexion from their younger days. They inch closer together, but eventually fall away, Case running through her memories. “I fucked every man I wanted to be,” she admits, before the whole thing explodes, sounding like Patsy Cline covering Wilco’s “Poor Places.”
That’s the hysteric strength that Case uses without batting an eyelash. When she evokes the very creation of man on “Dirty Diamond,” it’s not an overreach, but a natural path for Case to use. This is so much her world that “Sleep All Summer,” a duet with Eric Bachmann, turns her singing companion into an unwelcome interloper, the radio waves momentarily getting tangled with real life before returning to Case’s world.
It’s the title track that serves as the bedrock for all this sterling shape-shifting. It starts as a Tom Waitsian romp, morphs into a crackling, tension filled cauldron of ascending threats and then slips in a sunny, ‘60s-style harmony break. Case’s body and lyrics reflect the evolving nature, bringing in disturbing theological arguments and musings on how her voice could be used as a “garroting wire.” But after the madness breaks, she describes herself as “The undiscovered continent/ For you to undress/ But you’ll not be my master/ You’re barely my guest.” Is this Case warning a lover, or speaking as Mother Earth herself? Is she the acolyte or the avatar? At this point, it’s impossible to tell.