Neko Case, “Hell-On”
“God is a lusty tire fire.” Less than a minute into Neko Case’s new record, the songwriter has crafted one of the most unusual reinterpretations of a higher power in rock and roll history. Hell-On, Case’s seventh solo album, is bursting with gorgeous lines like this one, succinctly rendering complex ideas with painterly imagery. Case’s poetic inclinations provide Hell-On with some of its strongest moments, and her perfect verbal punches are matched by sparse and unpretentious production.
The title track braids a drowsy waltz with Case’s sage musings on “the natural world.” “Nothing quite so poison as a promise,” Case coos, before screeches of guitar roll in like a thick ocean fog. “I am not a mess,” she ensures. “I’m a wilderness, yes / The undiscovered continent for you to undress.” In the track’s closing moments, she whispers knowingly, like a folk oracle: “Be careful of the natural world.” It’s a message amplified tenfold by the softness of her delivery.
“Halls of Sarah” and “Gumball Blue” are matches for the title track, sneaking unexpected synthesizer flourishes into their stripped-down barroom rock. Both songs are acknowledgements of the female struggle, and Case’s commiserations with women are simultaneously understated and powerful. “Sorry stains my mouth gumball blue,” she sings in the latter, while she reprimands a world that loves “womankind as lions love Christians” in “Halls of Sarah.”
Like the women in her lyrics, Case’s music is strongest when she remains autonomous as a singer. Fortunately, this approach makes up the vast majority of Hell-On. The album’s two duets with former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan and former Archers of Loaf singer Eric Bachmann, however, are the record’s weakest links. “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” and “Sleep All Summer” (a cover of Bachmann’s track with Crooked Fingers) bear the kind of sterile obligation bred into most duets—sounding as if they were born from a lack of inspiration rather than a natural connection. Case had noted that Lanegan recorded all of his parts remotely, and that they only communicated via e-mail during the collaboration. The distance is audible. One wonders what magic could have sparked had everything happened in the studio. But regardless of some disconnect with Lanegan’s detached presence, Hell-On drafts a potent manifesto for women who speak their truth, sing their songs, and live by their word.