Neko Case’s last solo album, 2013’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, was the artistic culmination of an extended bout of depression. Similarly, Hell-On, her recently released eighth studio album, was recorded during a time of great tumult: while recording in Sweden, Case got word that her Vermont home had suffered a massive fire. Adding insult to injury, a local journalist published her full name and address, prompting outrage from Case, who has spent years trying to guard her privacy while battling a stalker in court.
Artistically, the drama created a silver lining. With Hell-On, Case confronts the destruction wrought by nature (and man) head on, reclaiming her own life and narrative from the wreckage. She dons a helmet of cigarettes, hair set aflame. She asserts agency over the forces surrounding her that fight to undo her while searching for connection in the midst of chaos.
And boy, do the songs reflect that.
Over the course of 12 songs, Case continually demonstrates her prowess and a musician and vocalist. She is one of those rare artists who manages to build on her previous work while still staying true to herself, with detailed and rich storytelling that manages to sound new and familiar all at once. She feels emotionally open to listeners, even when talking in metaphor. She’s dark and brutal, animalistic, almost visceral, and yet maintains that bright and airy quality that only ever adds to the complexity of the genre-defying artist that is Neko Case.
The duets on the album (of which there are many – k.d. lang, Laura Veirs, her New Pornographers bandmate A.C. Newman, Beth Ditto, Doug Gillard of Guided by Voices, and Joey Burns, to name a few) do not overwhelm and in fact seem to highlight her vocals further. They mesh beautifully, proving that there’s room for everyone if the production is done right. And of course, Case produced Hell-On herself; the diversity of the tracks reflect her eclectic taste while still maintaining a cohesive vision. It’s a resounding success.
The album begins with the title track, “Hell-On,” a waltzing, almost eerie rumination, with ballsy proclamations that “god is a lusty tire fire” and warnings to “be careful of the natural world.” It’s hard not to view this through the lens of Case’s personal struggles – the fire, the journalist, the stalker (“but you’ll not be my master, you’re barely my guest, you don’t have permission to take any pictures”) – and indeed, the production manages to make it sound precautionary, almost threatening. It’s the first in several songs ruminating on the idea of troubled humanity, including the airy “Last Lion of Albion” which gives thinly veiled critiques on the ways art is coopted for money; “Halls of Sarah,” a haunting ode to the way women are mistreated by men; and the deeply personal “My Uncle’s Navy,” that ends up being less about her uncle’s transgressions and more about her anger towards the people who allowed him to get away with it (“And I hated those who gave him access to our days, the ones who did nothin’, I still can’t love them”).
Days after the fire that took her home, Case recorded “Bad Luck,” a song previously written, but newly prescient in light of recent events, which no doubt informing her performance. The song emits a playful cynicism, Case’s wry, almost dark sense of humor (“so I died and went to work”) playing off the catchy call and response background vocals conceived by Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor.
“Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” featuring Mark Lanegen of the Screaming Trees, is one of the best songs on the album. It’s bittersweet, exploring Case’s past as a young, fresh-faced musician (”I miss the smell of mystery, reverb leaking out of tavern doors and not knowing how the sounds are made, so I left home and faked my ID, I fucked every man that I wanted to be”). The longing nostalgia apparent in every note sounds like a once-open wound that isn’t entirely healed. It’s tinged with regret and again, deeply personal.
“Sleep All Summer,” a cover of a Crooked Fingers song featuring Eric Bachmann himself was the weakest song on the album, but barely so. Bachmann’s voice never quite meshes with Case’s light and airy vocals, which takes you out of the mysticism of what is otherwise a good song. Still, it’s a small misstep in what is otherwise an incredible album.