By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Neko Case seizes one's imagination with a voice so arresting, escape's all but impossible. And while her rich, smoky alto has long reaped new listeners with its knee-eviscerating power, time's sharpened her lyrical edge as well.
Case's sketch of girls from different sides of fate's tracks, "Margaret vs. Pauline," the opener of 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, first served as notice that her words could be as potent as her vocals. Pauline is the fortunate one: "No monument of tacky gold/They smoothed her hair with cinnamon waves/They placed an ingot in her chest to burn cool and collected." Margaret, meanwhile, lacks her counterpart's grace ("Her bravery is mistaken for the thrashing in the lake"), assurance or porcelain beauty ("Her jaw aches from wanting and she's sick from chlorine/But she'll never be as clean"). Over low twang and keyboards, Case sums up her characters' different courses in the closing couplet, "One left her sweater sitting on the train/The other lost three fingers at the cannery."
It's difficult not to hear the echo of Case's own hardscrabble beginnings in those lines. Growing up in Tacoma, Washington (where her mom worked in a cannery), she split from her dysfunctional home as a teen, lived in a friend's basement for a while and eventually dropped out of school. Music was her saving grace, and the punk rock club Community World Theatre served as her church, rescuing her from perdition.
"The way I was raised—or not raised—my fortune was basically, 'You're going to be a drug-addicted stripper, most likely,'" Case says, before allowing a rueful laugh. "But, luckily for me, I fell in with a bunch of older people who kind of took me under their wing because they just thought I was a cool kid and that I was a smart kid. They took care of me...That could've been a creepy situation, but not at all. They really treated me with a lot of respect, and they gave me stuff to do. They gave me something to live for."
Once a drummer backing a punk-rock combo, Case eventually stepped out front to showcase her vocal instrument. Though initially drawn to country music, she's significantly broadened her palette since her start. While a good measure of twang remains, her music frequently sounds more like homespun torch pop than alt-country—and everything from folk jangle to baroque pop and haunting low-key garage strut make appearances on her latest release.
The new songs also deeply indulge Case's running penchant for personifying animals and nature, like when she describes a tornado pursuing her love across three counties, smashing electrical transformers with trailers in a petulant tantrum. Or when magpies warn a child to seize the passing summer. Or when mockingbirds taunt sorrow for its fear of the dark. On "I'm an Animal," she acknowledges she's not domesticated, roaring with passion and an admonishment to accept one's instincts.
"That one is just about how every weird social thing comes down to mating, and how funny it is when you realize that," Case says.
Indeed, much of the album is consumed with love and its perennial allure, a subject that presented itself after its relative absence on her prior albums.
"I had done so many interviews where I said I don't really write love songs," she explains. "Whenever you act like you know what you're talking about, you contradict yourself. Your subconscious is like 'Ha ha, look what I did to you, I made you look stupid.'"
But Case hardly comes off in such a manner. In its most poignant expression, on Middle Cyclone's title track, Case sings that she "can't scrape together quite enough to ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love."
"You try to be too cool for [love], but no," she says, with the air of someone who knows. "It's like if you were too cool to drink water: 'Water's dumb. I don't drink it.'"
The moral there: Why resist the inevitable? Appreciating Case's music seems just as obvious and self-evident.