Soulful lyrics from a resilient voice
It is often said that when persevering through moments of extreme stress and pressure, some of the most ingenious and universally relatable ideas in art are born. Following a fire at her Vermont home, run-ins with a stalker and the growth of the #MeToo movement, the same could be said for Neko Case and the background of her new record.
Hell-On, released on June 1 with ANTI- Records, is the seventh full-length solo album the singer-songwriter has put together in her roughly 20 year-long career. Even though she has been singing for two decades, her voice still doesn’t show any signs of wear. After all the albums, the tours and everything else she’s endured, her voice still sounds pristine and in top-form as ever on Hell-On.
On her solo follow-up to 2013s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, Case is able to combine dark lyrics and stories into enchanting songs that are backed by her strong voice. The angelic chorus on “Bad Luck” has similarities to a ’60s pop group like the Ronnettes, creating a charming backdrop to Case’s stories of misfortune.
Case consulted Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John to co-produce the album because “I wanted to see where I could go with big choruses, so I needed someone who had an incredibly strong sense of melody and hooks,” Case said in an interview with Billboard. This is especially apparent on “Bad Luck” as well as “Last Lion of Albion,” two of the more uplifting and catchier tracks on the melancholy 12-track release. But even in that regard, songs like “Bad Luck” sound like a tough pill to swallow beneath a pleasing melody, ending with the reprise of “So I died and went to work,” resigning to her fate.
Diving deeper, the lyrics on many of the tracks read like poetry worth interpreting for the art they represent. These tracks explore themes of cynicism, violence, warrior-like perseverance and broken love, just to mention a few topics. “God is a lusty tire fire” is a great line from the tip-toeing title track, and “Save the blazing stare of their captain / Who held lightning captive in her teeth” on “Winnie,” a track that harkens back to folk tales of Amazon warriors.
While the album is sparing in terms of uplifting subject matter, the melodies and tempos of many of the tracks are beautiful in a disconsolate way. The closing track, “Pitch or Honey,” evolves from a creeping slow burn into a driving, enchanting finale with low, striking guitar chords and harmonizing vocals.
The New Pornographers vocalist has different bandmates appear on various tracks on Hell-On. John Collins adds a layer of synthesizer on the spacy “Gumball Blue,” which was co-written by her New Pornographers compatriot A.C. Newman. “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” her duet with Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age fame, reads like a narrated soliloquy looking back on the fast and hard way Case lived her life when she was younger.
“Sleep All Summer” reminds me of “California Dreamin’,” complete with a stereo duet between Case and Eric Bachmann. The somber piano melody underlays the cold subject matter that the singers announce to on top of one another. “Why won’t you fall back in love with me?” they ask together, punctuating each chorus, making this is one of the album’s highlights, as well as one of its most tender moments.
“My Uncle’s Navy,” with a skipping beat and a hazy minor guitar tone, tells the first-person story of an uncle who would cut off the heads of garter snakes to scare little girls. The lyrics explore multiple angles of the memory, not only how Case felt in the situation, but her wonder as to how someone could do this and not be stopped: exploring the thoughts of the victims of violence and pondering the reasons behind the evil that men inflict.
This album is private yet sublime, beautiful yet somber; a smoldering ember. Hell-On is worth checking out for New Pornographers fans, balladeers and alt-country connoisseurs alike.