Neko Case is a singer-songwriter known for her uncommonly clarion vox, acerbic whimsy, nature mothering, and fiery red hair. But after the public exorcism of the #MeToo movement and the burning down of her Vermont home, the soft rock singer was forced to confront a new set of ugly and harsh realities. And she uses her new album, Hell-On, to help her do it. There is some serious introspection on the record, with the the lead-off title track diving right in to question who or what God is, finally defining him as “a lusty tire fire” – a line that is perfect in its poetic murkiness. But most amusing is “Bad Luck,” a song Case kept in her back pocket for several years, that she ironically recorded in Sweden on the morning of her house fire. Mocking ridiculous superstitions like breaking a mirror, Case uses her gift for curious phrasing to make up her own idioms of bad luck, showing the unreasonability of using faith in such events as explanation for the discomforting enigmas we encounter through life. In this lighthearted-sounding song, we start to see the way her dark wake-up call infects her empathy for the natural world with a lack for the human one in the verses, “Right here in human time / My heart could break / for a one-legged seagull / And still afford nothing to you.”
She reaffirms the creeping presence of this darkness in the nearly 7-minute center of the album, “Curse of I-5 Corridor,” that deals with nostalgia and the loss of innocence as a young woman. It was this song that most moved me in my first listen, as I heard an echo of my own thoughts in her words. In it, she spins imagery that is both familiar and foreign, maintaining a poetic distance that proves sometimes words are more about the feelings they evoke than their literally translated meanings. “Curse of I-5 Corridor” also helps explain the wickedly dramatic cover for Hell-On. Case wears a crown of cigarettes that hides her signature feature, while flames start to lick up the ends of her hair. Cigarettes are one of the many sources that fuel her nostalgia in that middle song of the album, and the fire on the cover no doubt refers to the burning of her possessions by Mother Nature – someone to which she has spent her whole career paying tribute.
Per usual for Case, each track has enough substance to garner its own lengthy review of the modern folktales in her languid yet piercing voice. At 52 minutes, the energy and clarity of Hell-On ebbs and flows, anchoring around the vocals of Case and other guest collaborators from her previous bands and projects, like The New Pornographers or case/lang/veirs. In her quirky vein of writing on this mostly self-produced album, the carefully crafted phrases all but let you drift away before once more grabbing you with a familiar line like, “The sweet, sweet burn / Of the first drink of the night, underage / Knowing that you’re gonna get away with it.” I’m still not quite sure if such words pull you into a comforting hug or a stinging slap in the face with the pain of remembering a more mysterious time. Hell-On is Case battling her own mysteries, uncovering their sometimes dark underbellies in light of the aforementioned harsh realities. With a song inspired by the strength of the Amazon women and another detailing a relative’s mistreatment of animals, Case ends the album unable to decide if she’s made “Pitch or Honey” with her music. Regardless, she shares in the final verse that her place in the wild beauty of nature has always been and still remains to be her rescue from the darkness. — SOPHIE BURKHOLDER