Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Review: Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone

There's no denying that Neko Case is a force of nature. Her voice is unmistakable and her songs are haunting, which makes it all the more astonishing that she didn’t take up singing until into her 20’s. It’s almost a crime.

Her latest release, Middle Cyclone, shows off a clear progression in her songwriting abilities. Comparably, the tracks off of Blacklisted, just a few years past, seem more simplistic and straightforward.

With her next effort, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Case created lush and epic landscapes full of abstract and fantastic stories. At times gothic and looming, she presented tales of “make-believe monsters” and big bad wolves. For my money, there’s nothing quite as moody and atmospheric as “The Dirty Knife”. Musically, she upped the ante, using more textures and beautiful cascading harmonies. Whereas Blacklisted firmly established Neko Case as a soulful, alt-country star, Fox Confessor was an ambitious, exploratory album which could be viewed as her Sgt. Pepper’s.

However, I sense that with Middle Cyclone, she’s found a middle ground (no pun intended) between her work on Blacklisted and Fox Confessor. Neko has absorbed all the lessons she’s learned before and utilized them all to create a much more deliberate and tempered album. Not as dark or serious as Fox Confessor, yet more complex and progressive than Blacklisted.

The themes have shifted as well. She isn’t as introspective as in Blacklisted, or intimate as with Fox Confessor; Middle Cyclone’s story is less about a specific person and more about mankind. Or specifically mankind in relation to nature. A first-person account by a tornado, descriptions of being mauled or eaten by animals, and blatantly saying “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” all show the fragility of man and that nature is a force to be respected.

In “Next Time You Say Forever”, Case reminds us that we are mortal and that what we create can be swept away with the lyrics “To be the dangling ceiling, from the roof came crashing down, peeling in the heat, vanished in the rain. The next time you say forever, I’ll punch you in your face.” Later on, she sings about the “Cistine Chapel painted with a gattling gun”, telling us that even the most prized accomplishments of man are temporary and perishable.

However, Case doesn’t present these ideas as a scare tactic. I mean, how serious can she be when her cover art features her crouching on the hood of a Mercury Cougar holding a sword? In fact, as serious as her subject matter is, I feel that this album is far less foreboding than Fox Confessor.

She presents the idea that we affect and are affected by nature equally. We’re not diametric forces, but rather harmonious ones. As the tornado, Case croons that she/it loves you, and later on points out that man is also an animal. And we can’t claim individual insignificance with “I didn’t know what a brute I was... And I drag the clanging notion I was nobody, nobody.”

Of course, it’s a Neko Case album so there are bound to be several beautiful, beautiful moments to be heard. “Vengeance is Sleeping” is an achingly gorgeous song. “Magpie to the Morning” showcases how Neko’s voice can soar like no other.

For the final track, Case allots nearly half the length of the entire album to the ambient sounds of frogs and other backyard creatures. It’s a fitting, final point to her message of having respect for nature.

What I come away with in the end is more respect for Neko Case. With each release, she shows noticeable growth as an artist. Fox Confessor was almost a collection of fairy tales and short stories, but Middle Cyclone demonstrates a much more calculated theme throughout. Like old school country artists, Case is a storyteller that creates characters with her lyrics, rather than relying on simpler, autobiographical lines like other modern vocalists. She’s a poet that uses complex imagery and metaphors that invite us to interpret them. Who’s not going to eat up lines such as “I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes”?

Like that tornado, her power and love commands our respect and makes us love her back.

Check out Neko’s MySpace page to hear some of her new songs.

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