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Neko Case Is Still Fighting

On her seventh solo album, the alt-country heroine presents the tragedy, the comedy, and the joyful grossness of humanity—along with some of the best songs of 2018

Neko Case playing guitar Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Neko Case recorded vocals for one of the best songs of 2018 on the day after her house burned down, and wrote one of the best tweets of 2018 shortly after farting on someone. And that, my friends, is the full range of human experience.

Let’s get the tweet out of the way. “Um, I was at the gym,” Case explains with a laugh, chatting on the phone in late May. “And a really handsome, well-dressed man walked by. And I’m like the mutt dog sitting at your feet. It was just funny. There was no malice behind it. It was just like, ehh.”

Did the guy realize it? “Probably not. It’s just one of the little things. The joy of being human. We’re so gross. We’re gross.”

The tragedy, and the comedy, and the inherent, joyful grossness of humanity are Case’s major concerns, and her best songs blur those lines into meaninglessness. “Bad Luck”—the latest single from Case’s seventh solo album, Hell-On (out Friday and streaming via NPR now)—is a transcendent slice of ’60s-girl-group buoyancy, dusted with wry pathos and amplified by her inimitable flamethrower voice. There are singers who use reverb as a smoke machine, a means of masking their pitchiness or faking the sort of ambiance and authority they can’t manage on their own. Neko Case is not like this. Her voice is both gargantuan and achingly sensitive; her songs are lush, noirish Americana vistas, both earthy and delightfully surreal.

The results can be joyful, and they can be brutal. That Case found herself singing a cheerful song called “Bad Luck” the day after her 18th-century Vermont farmhouse burned down last fall—she was recording in Sweden at the time, and everyone emerged uncathed—qualifies as both. Hell-On’s cover image alone—which depicts Case on fire, and wearing a crown of cigarettes—speaks to her vibrant and also pitch-black sense of humor. “My animals are staying with good friends, and they’re doing good, so that’s a good thing,” she says. “Knowing that they’re OK and doing well—like, I can rest on that.”

Case’s vivid connection to animals, and to the natural world as a whole, was evident from the start. Born in Virginia and raised primarily in Tacoma, Washington, she kicked off her 25-year career in twee, feral Vancouver punk bands like Cub and Maow. Starting with 2000’s Mass Romantic and stretching to last year’s Whiteout Conditions, she’s been a crucial element of sprawling Canadian supergroup the New Pornographers, the best power-pop band of their generation. Meanwhile, her first solo album, 1997’s The Virginian (credited to Neko Case & Her Boyfriends), established her as an alt-country superheroine, the duly elected mayor of Fist City. (Please enjoy “Honky Tonk Hiccups.”) But that genre quickly grew too stifling, too inadequate a descriptor for a murder ballad as luxuriantly detailed as 2002’s “Deep Red Bells,” or a song of devotion as menacing and catastrophic as “This Tornado Loves You.”

The best Neko Case songs depict her as some fearsome force of nature, passionate and also merciless—2009’s Middle Cyclone alone has “This Tornado Loves You,” and the quick love/lust jam “I’m an Animal,” and a grandiose cover of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth.” Her press coverage over the years is heavily populated with dogs and horses; my favorite live performances of hers usually have a silly animal component, whether she’s doing a 2013 NPR Tiny Desk Concert in a full gorilla suit (it was Halloween) or singing the 2004 torch song “Favorite” to, or more accurately with, her dog Liza.

But the natural world can be cruel, too, and our treatment of it far crueler. And that has always been true, even if our current political moment is an especially dispiriting time to care very deeply about, or identify heavily with, the environment. Case’s own outlook hasn’t changed much, and has never been rosy. “No, I think it’s always been dark and bleak, from my perspective,” she says. “I’ve always felt bad. I’m sure nature doesn’t care. I’m very comforted by the fact that the world would be just fine without human beings. But it makes it no less heartbreaking to see what we destroy, and to see what people never see, living their lives on the planet.”

Hell-On kicks off with the unsettling title track, a mesmerizing list of things Case sees that nobody else does, full of both characteristically striking one-liners (“God is a lusty tire fire”) and long, lyrical passages that constitute a slow burn, a slow fade into the undergrowth. She is leaving this planet by physically becoming it:

And me, I’m not a mess
I’m a wilderness, yes
The undiscovered continent
For you to undress
But you’ll not be my master
You’re barely my guest
You don’t have permission to take any pictures
Be careful of the natural world

The way she whispers be careful is how you know that no amount of care will save us. Hell-On is beautiful and tragic, witty and utterly furious. “Halls of Sarah” pulls you in with delicate acoustic guitars, but the lyrics are gorgeously harsh: “Men build their industries around you / Gathered in withers of your hair / They’re looking for their own reflection / You’re left to die of exposure, Sarah.”

Basically, it’s a song about the perils of someone writing a song about you. “I chose the name Sarah because it is a name people like to sing,” Case says. “It’s a very melodic-sounding name. It’s about people being someone’s muse without their permission. And I also chose the name Sarah because the Fleetwood Mac example, the song ‘Sara’ that they wrote, is the opposite of exploitive. It is a celebration of a Sarah without selling out the Sarah. Do you know what I’m saying? That’s the beautiful end of that.”

The far uglier end of that, however, is buried deep in Case’s song: “You see our poets / Do an odious business / Loving womankind / As lions love Christians.” Case has a great deal of recent personal trauma to unpack, in song and in interviews. Last month, she told Pitchfork that in the immediate aftermath of her house fire, she initially publicly denied the property was hers due to ongoing issues with a stalker. But another dark line from that interview has much broader implications: “When in history did we start hating women? When the fuck did this happen?”

Her anger over society’s historically atrocious treatment of her gender is palpable, both on Twitter and in conversation. Interviewers have been asking her lately why the #MeToo movement has been slower to influence and improve the music industry, and she points at the callous treatment of Kesha’s account that Dr. Luke raped her (which Luke continues to deny) as a key factor. “I took it really personally, and I found it to be really painful,” she tells me. “And you know, right after that there was the whole Jian Ghomeshi thing in Canada. And so, it is happening everywhere, and it’s always happening. And the fact that she was brave enough to come forward, and for the court to decide that she was still property of a rapist? That is vile.”

For her, it’s vile but not shocking—just further proof of how historically deep that hatred of women goes. “I don’t want to sound like some conspiracy theorist, but I don’t give a shit, because the conspiracies are true,” she says. “It is a conspiracy. It’s been a conspiracy for centuries. When somebody’s scooping out a little bit of your humanity, and you’re not allowed to have it, it makes you—you can’t fight the math. It’s always on you. Like a bunch of fuckin’ horrible spider webs. It’s not something I can live with as a human being. And I won’t live with it.”

Remarkably, Case may be the only human alive who uses Twitter to feel better about this state of affairs. Follow her and you’ll get the occasional spectacular farting anecdote, but more often you’ll be inundated with information: Case is a serial retweeter, amplifying a huge coterie of activists, journalists, historians, and artists. “It’s a really great place to listen and to learn things,” she says. “I would leave, but I learn too much. I don’t know. I meet a lot of really like-minded people. I don’t have any sort of delusion that I’m changing anyone’s mind about anything, or that I really have any kind of influence. But I like to amplify—broadcast people that I think are really cool. And that other people would get things out of.”

“There’s so much to learn,” she continues. “We’ve only really just started talking about feminism in a real way, for the first time since the ’70s. We need to start over again, and figure out what that means. I’ve learned the most about feminism by learning about colonialism. And so I’ve really been ravenously—I don’t know if you can ravenously listen. But I like to ravenously listen and rebroadcast.”

This collective fighting spirit manifests itself all over Hell-On. She produced most of the record herself, but brought on Björn Yttling, he of mid-’00s Swedish indie-pop sensations Peter Bjorn and John, to add some punch to a half-dozen songs. “I wanted some new sounds,” Case says. “And I love what he does. He loves the hook, and he’s really good at elevating a chorus. And that is something I really wanted.”

The result, on “Bad Luck,” is the catchiest song of Case’s solo career and the best unofficial Peter Björn and John song since “Young Folks,” spectacularly vivid right from its opening lines:

Woke a dog from a running dream, and that’s bad luck
Ate a black fly in the cream, and that’s bad luck
Chipped my tooth on an engagement ring, that’s bad luck
I could’ve stopped any one of these things, but that would’ve been bad luck

“Winnie” is a sultry and ferocious waltz with booming guest vocals from Beth Ditto, with a chorus that begins, “We were warriors / We clothed ourselves in the guts of our enemies / Who’d no respect for the wild.” But the record’s most revolutionary moments are also the quietest. “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” an epic truck-stop lullaby of a duet with alt-rock veteran Mark Lanegan, finds Case at her most powerful and her most unguarded, reminiscing on her youth with her usual elegant bluntness. “I miss the smell of mystery reverb leaking out of tavern doors / And not knowing how the sounds were made,” they sing, nearly a cappella. And then drums and piano drop in, and Case goes on alone: “So I left home and faked my ID / I fucked every man that I wanted to be / I was so stupid then / Why should mystery give its last name?”

“That song means so much to me, and it’s so personal,” Case says. “And Mark and I have been crossing each other’s paths since we were both, like, 17 years old, so I knew he would understand the song.” (The I-5 runs along the Pacific Coast, from Mexico all the way to Canada.) “The situation just kind of demanded it. It was like a lesson learned over many, many, many years. And it was really painful. And it really hurt to write.” She is still learning, and still hurting, but most importantly, still fighting.

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