may 2009

The Angel of Anomie

By Christopher Hill

Neko Case's music seems to have grown more lyrical as her sentiments have grown more ferocious

Every so often you hear Neko Case referred to as "that voice;" sometimes, even more emphatically, "the voice." Something makes people talk about her like that, an awareness that Case seems poised to evolve from a mere singer into a Voice.

When a singer becomes a Voice we're no longer talking about the technical qualities of breath over vocal chords or control of the diaphragm. No, Voice in this sense means singing plus signifying. A Voice is a singer whose actual singing is just one piece of a persona. A Voice creates a psychic space for a constituency that he/she has a unique power to speak to and move. A Voice attracts to itself a world of associations. Who doesn't absorb half of Lou Reed's métier just by hearing him singing a few bars? A singer provides one piece of a performance, like a bass player. A Voice is an attraction all by itself, and carries a weight of extra-musical meaning that a singer is spared. When young Elvis opened his mouth, he personified a generation of white kids in the Deep South who had been secretly thrilling to black music in the depths of Jim Crow. When Joni Mitchell sang, there was a whole self-involved southern California hippie gentry world present. When Sinatra did his thing, there was always a saloon at closing time implied, the streets outside empty and black with rain. Lotte Lenya, Dolly Parton, Judy Garland, Marc Bolan—every inflection was enriched by what they had come to mean.

Neko Case is one of the few performers from '90-'00's indie music equipped to even formulate that ambition. In the years she's spent fronting bands, being part of bands, essaying into the solo world, she's been building a platform from which to make her leap into being a Voice. On her new CD, Middle Cyclone, she's marshaled her considerable forces to solidify her bid, and it's not an unrealizable goal, as her number three entry into the Billboard charts testifies.

A Voice requires pipes, persona and audience. The physical quality of the voice must be distinctive. Not necessarily outstanding by professional or aesthetic canons, but memorable. Pipes we know Neko has. She's capable of going from brassy to intimate, from gospel shout to weary late-night confessional, just the faintest hint left of twang from the country influenced material that she established herself with. Note, however, that she seems to want to break out of the alt-country ghetto—a cursory listen reveals that Neko's come down from the mountain for good, if she was ever really up there in the first place, having let go of any purchase on roots music, "Americana" or the nods to the Nashville songbook, which once formed a defining piece of her presentation.

The persona-building starts with the cover art which shows her crouched on the hood of a speeding Mercury, poised to skewer her prey with a Braveheart-sized longsword.

The predatory pose of the cover shot is echoed in the opener, "This Tornado Loves You." The conceit of Neko as a tornado pursuing her loved one across the Midwest is fun and harmonizes with the airy swoop of the music til you listen to the lyrics and think the conceit is maybe pushed just a little too far:

My love I am the speed of sound
I left them motherless, fatherless
their souls dangling inside-out from their mouths...

I carved your name across three counties
and ground it in with bloody hides
broken necks will line the ditch
I want you

Case's music seems to have grown more lyrical as her sentiments have grown more ferocious. The way she sings, "I left them motherless, fatherless" is so lovely, it lures you, humming and tapping your foot, into the deadly images that follow. This happens throughout the record. Neko may get her man (dead or alive) but there are bodies and destruction in her wake. The closing chorus of "Tornado" is sweet but at a high price —This tornado loves you, but how is our indie boy supposed to respond, faced with this American Kali?

"Tornado" sets a mood that carries through the record. Try "Polar Nettles":

The orderly found him there
filleted on the marble stairs
hat still in hand,
his smoking remains blown out by a kiss from nurse.

But is it the music of a nightmare? No, it is reflective, limpid, subtle, full of melodic invention.

Now try "People Got a Lotta Nerve," a charming, chiming folk rocker with the album's only hook:

You know they call them "killer" whales?!
But you seem surprised when it pinned you down
to the bottom of the tank
where you can't turn around
it took half your leg and both your lungs.

And this is not the end of the mayhem and nightmares.

In a couple decades of feminine rage, few singers have gotten quite so deep in the gristle as Neko Case. And yet the mood is self-reflexive, frequently tender, melancholy, almost always melodically lovely. I don't believe Neko wants to fillet me. There's some other kind of damage done here. She'd not really angry. She's weary. "Did someone make a fool of me, 'fore I could show 'em how it's done?" she asks in the way you do when it's happened a thousand times before. Maybe all this bloodlust is explained when Neko admits, "I want the pharaohs but there's only men..."

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The official EPK for Middle Cyclone: Neko Case discussing the making of the album

Her symbolist lyrics—allusive, sophisticated, genuinely poetic at times—can also be recondite and obscure, "Retching pennies into a boiling well" is evocative, but it's not at all clear of what. But just a line later comes the great lyric, "It was so clear to me that it was almost invisible..."

Oh yes, and she writes beautiful songs. There are always interesting twists of melody, the voice is prone to sudden surprising leaps into soulful sing-alongable chorus like, "You said I was your blue blue baby/And you were right," that emerges from the middle of "Pharoahs." Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me " with its lowdown slowly rolling gait and the mood of regretful reverie touched with iron, is perfectly suited to her; she sounds completely convincing.

With Case, romance is a sort of naturally depressive state, despite her avowals in songs like "This Tornado Loves You" and "People Got a Lot of Nerve" that her passion is so powerful that it's the equivalent of natural disasters and large predators. An air of unspecific anomie that hangs over the record,

Back when she was covering other people's songs, singing in an "Alt-country" mode, she was working with some givens, in emotion and content. If you listen to the old gospel "John Saw that Number" from Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, you hear more concentration of feeling, and paradoxically, more freedom. than on most of Middle Cyclone. When she covered traditional songs or classic country, she was presented with a ready-made set of feelings, which filled and enriched the vehicle of her voice, and one felt greatness was close.

Another way of saying it is she's a little too good for her own good. Her gifts may be making her seem like a more fully formed artist than she is. Her singing and songwriting talents seem here to have intimidated everyone—collaborators, producers, managers, record company people—into giving her free reign on Middle Cyclone. But she could use a little more creative friction, a John or Paul, pick your metaphoric Beatle, for her talent to grind up against. And that brings up a related issue: Would it kill her to rock once in a while, or at least choose some material where she has to lean into it a little? Some touch of blues or gospel or honky-tonk? We know that Neko can blow the walls back, but on Middle Cyclone we have to settle for a kind of bloodthirsty Carole King. If she were rocking, the more impenetrable lyrics wouldn't be an issue. Fragments of them would flash past, leaving colored shards in the mind of the listener, to be gradually worked into their own meaning.

A Voice, as we've said, enunciates the soul of an audience. But (keeping in mind that number three slot in Billboard) who is the audience? What nerve of empathy does she touch? My hunch (keeping in mind also Middle Cyclone's number one slot on the indie charts) is that her anomie touches the general anomie of the indie-rock audience. Vaguely uncomfortable in their skins, but not angry at anyone in particular; not particularly happy, but not exactly depressed; interested in love and sex but not on fire; clinging to guitar/bass/drums, but strangely reluctant to rock out. Neko gives them murderous impulses, but in a gorgeous, catchy folk-pop setting, impulses that eventually flatten out into the winsome "This tornado loves you" endearment at the end. Will she be the background soundtrack for better loft parties everywhere, or will she rip the joint up and demand a response from all of us? She's a Voice, alright, but one that's still in search of the right ears.

Not that anomie is artistically fatal. It is a real state of the soul and needs its poets. Lou Reed transmuted profound anomie and its accompanying random cruelty into soul and poetry. And in the beginning he was signifiying for a far smaller subculture than Neko Case. Maybe we will look back on Neko Case's audience of educated young white singles as a great one, a creative matrix. Stranger things have happened. When that day comes, there will be no other to be the Voice of young uncertain America in the '00s than Neko Case.

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"People Got a Lotta Nerve," Neko Case from her new album,
Middle Cyclone

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