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NEKO CASE Hell-On gets 8/10

Neko Case
Neko Case

Hell-On
ANTI-

8/10

There has been only one time when listening to another RTR presenter interview a musician I’ve wanted to wrestle the microphone from their hand. It was back five or so years ago and the musician in question was the always fascinating Neko Case. In passing she mentioned (and I paraphrase) that she often felt ugly and then would proceed to get angry at herself because her punk/feminist-origins meant she shouldn’t care about that. And yet! And yet the thought was placed down and never picked up again.

In Hell-On, her 7th solo LP, Case has picked that thread up and presented it the way it was probably always best heard from her. “At times I feel so beautiful it’s strange for a tomboy,” she sings in Oracle of the Maritimes, “at times I feel so ugly I’m afraid.” Within the tales her songs tell Case always has a truth she is presenting to us, often ones that sit at the heart of living life as a female. One of my favourite lines is from Hold On, Hold On from 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood – “I left the party at 3am,” she croons, ”Alone. Thank God.” A slip of a lyric yet it was like she was taking me aside in the song, rolling her eyes and letting me in on a truth we both knew and never mentioned. The cool babysitter in musical form; telling you ghost stories, playing you Patsy Cline and Wire records, letting you try a little whisky.

As you can probably tell I find it hard to be impartial with my opinions on Neko Case. Hell-On is, though, one of her best albums, rich in narrative and soulfulness, with an underbelly of anger and righteousness. The opening – and title – track Hell-On sounds like the introduction to a darkly themed musical with Case the devilish narrator tipping her hat to the audience, warning them of things to come. “Have mercy,” she warns, “on the natural world”. (This is the same track that has endlessly quotable line “God is a lusty tyre fire”). Case’s connection to the natural world is obvious in her music. She draws from it much like another female songwriter, Stevie Nicks, and Halls of Sarah sounds like a cousin to Nicks’ own Sara – but as Case intones it is “a name people like to sing.”

Whilst recording Hell-On Case’s home burnt down. Luckily neither her partner nor her many animals were hurt but the twin traumas of losing her house and then having her home address published in the newspaper, when she had been dealing with a stalker; a one-two punch. It is hard not to listen for lyrical connections in the album – there is a great deal of anger and pain there but the album was mostly finished before this happened. Let’s not forget this is the same musician whose last album was called The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight – she has never been short on a little rage.

Hell-On is not a straight forward personal record; it uses narratives and characters, brings in voices other than Case’s such as Beth Ditto or Mark Lanegan, to present a wider scope. It provides the listener with extra gifts with every listen – particularly lyrically. Despite being slightly poppier then previous outings Hell-On doesn’t wander far from the path Case has already forged previously. So whilst it is a gem for those who love what Neko Case does, and hopefully some new listeners, those who have tried her music previously and don’t find her to their liking aren’t going to be swayed by a creative left-turn.

Neko Case already has all her gifts, she knows what she likes and who she is and now she is just reaching deeper into her bag of tricks to produce a mature, interesting album that is both musically and lyrically rich. As she sings in the album’s first single, and ironically it’s most musically upbeat track Bad Luck, “so I died and went to work.” Lucky us.

JAS HUGHES

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