Will Hermes | Longreads | June 2018 | 16 minutes (3,994 words)
Neko Case’s powerhouse voice often seems like it might level buildings. But during a 20-plus-year career, she’s put it to more constructive use, both as singular solo act and poster child for collective creativity. She formed the ultra-meta power-pop band The New Pornographers with kindred singer-songwriters Carl Newman and Dan Bejar in 1997, the same year she released her own debut LP, The Virginian, an eclectic, country-rock-leaning set of originals and deep-catalog covers: Everly Brothers, Loretta Lynn, hard-rock-era Queen. Since then she’s worked alternately with the Pornographers and under her own name, with occasional side projects like The Corn Sisters (with Carolyn Mark) and Case/Lang/Viers (a low-key supergroup with k.d. lang and Laura Viers).
Hell-On, Case’s new solo album, is as gorgeous, imaginative, and potent as any she’s made, and for a lyricist given to imagistic fables and emotional meditations, it responds to the cultural-environmental moment vividly. Songs address nature’s ruthlessness (it’s worth noting Case’s Vermont home was destroyed in a fire when she was out of the country recording songs), along with the vagaries and tyrannies of gender, the endless negotiations of love, and even the attributes of the Almighty. “God is not a contract or a guy,” she sings on the title track, a faintly hallucinatory waltz that tilts into an empowered come-on (“I am not a mess/I’m a wilderness, yes/The undiscovered continent/For you to undress/But you’ll not be my master/You’re barely my guest,” she instructs). Another standout, “Halls of Sarah,” casts a #metoo side-eye at the trope of woman-as-muse (“Our poets do an odious business loving womankind/As lions love Christians”). At the same time, “Sleep All Summer,” a song by ex-bandmate Eric Bachmann, is a heartbreaker about faded love that feels like a forgotten classic.
The recording sessions enlisted a busload of other fellow travelers: Viers and lang, punk/pop/queer/ feminist/fashion icon Beth Ditto, veteran grunge crooner Mark Lanegan, Swedish indie-pop scientist Bjorn Yttling, various Pornographers and other long-time associates, a squadron of whom are on the road with her this year. At a tour stop in Brooklyn in May, bandmates Rachel Flotard and Shelly Short formed a powerhouse frontline with Case at the club Littlefield, delivering new songs like a trio of wisecracking Valkyries.
I spoke to Case on the phone some days later, as she was idling in San Diego before another show. She spoke about the album, the fire that recently destroyed her house, and the 2016 WOMANPRODUCER conference, which she described as “the highlight of my professional career.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.