Animals in Time: Neko Case and the Contemporary Country
The music of Neko Case shows us a world of danger, guilt, regret, displaced hearts, lost time and lost faith, several deaths, the matter-of-factness of animals, and reckoning. In other words, exactly what the contemporary moment shows us.
In a little-known short story by James Agee, a poet and soldier has returned home from the Second World War, and in an effort to reestablish something of ease with his estranged wife has unearthed his collection of old jazz records. Bringing out these records proves sad and complicated, as he discovers that the associations bound up with the music are no longer common between them and that his own memories, fantasies, and experiences evoked by the music seem only to make grosser, wider, the chasm separating that life from this one. He finds that the person he was is an anachronism, lost and missing. For Agee, such are the depths reached as music cores into time, or as time into music: so inextricable are the two, as they cause our most fundamental notions of identity and history to twist together, revealing everything or nothing.
This is where "1928 Story" begins. Back home, trying but lost, the poet-soldier recoils from the records he truly thought of as his, records that had, before, marked him out in the world and made him feel good and right. Now they feel weird and kind of wrong. Wrong because the senses of world they suggest are too innocent. This is an innocence, he says, "that has no business being so innocent." But Agee doesn't really tell this story; he doesn't really tell the story of a soldier making a go of it after the war, not explicitly anyway. The story he tells is really of those days spent discovering in the first place the music that after the war, after all, haunts.
Certainly recorded music haunts us almost by definition. Technologies of recording allow the past to remain, to stay, and in some ways usurp and challenge the very usual and powerful notions of chronology; disembodied and nostalgic, recorded music perpetually carries with it both wanted and unwanted presences. And sometimes such presence can seem, at least for a moment and with varying levels of intensity, to occupy our whole bodies, our whole selves, metaphysically embodying blood for us. These are those songs that for whatever individual reasons, carry. They are the ones that take us back, pull us on, and rest waiting for us sometime again in the future.
I said that the bulk of "1928 Story" actually sees us through the poet-soldier's developing musical appreciation and imagination. And it's here, in Agee's representation of what music can do to the listening mind, that we find an acute articulation of one of music's most impressive achievements: its capacity for making, its ability to hint at such rich fullness, such breadth and detail, so as to form convincing other places, other worlds. Agee puts it this way: "The music had developed in him a distinct image of a place he had never known." In the case of this story, this is a late-night, gin-drunk bar place where musicians perpetually in the present tense play all night long, mixing terrific control and terrible devotion. Crucially, Agee's character has never actually been to a place like the one he sees whilst listening to his records; this image of place is just that, an image, a figment, a shimmering insubstantiality, a place without existence, without being. Just air; not even air.
What though, does this have to do with Neko Case?
Lots, I think.
The imagined juke joint in Agee's story is appreciated for seeming timeless -- his gin-fueled musicians play in a tense that is ideal and forever-present; this place that doesn't but does exist is so constituted because there is no notion of conclusion in the fantasy. But, at the same time and from outside the imagination of the main character, Agee has given his story a title to represent the specificity of recorded time, the relevancy of history -- 1928. It is both a mark of time, and a timeless mark. This music, then, is charged with signifying two apparently contradictory manifestations of time.
A similar working through of time is at play on Neko Case's record Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-). This record is perfectly of its time, historically specific and relevant: it is so 2006 it hurts, and, it seems to me that either by reaching towards or intuitively grasping, this collection of 12 songs grants delicate definition to an "us" of contemporary feeling and identification, an "us" that is at once powerful and yet sort of squashed-seeming. Paradoxically, though -- or perhaps necessarily -- this sense of time, this perfectly represented present moment comes about, works, because of the record's unique and knowing senses of the past. There is a world of time on this album.
Sometimes we speak of artists' "worlds". These are those groupings of qualities that seem ultra-specific to an individual creative voice, qualities which recur in their works and seem to form a balloon of consistency around their outputs, usually in terms of narrative. If we refer to a world created by an artist, we're likely talking about his handling, managing, and overall productions of spaces and times. While the concept of an artist-imagined world is endorsed in fiction criticism, it comes up less often in discussions of popular musicians (Bruce Spingsteen, David Bowie, Lucinda Williams, and maybe Belle and Sebastian being a few notable exceptions). To refer to a world compelled into some kind of quasi-existence, as Agee puts it, "in the music", is not just to speak of consistency of attitude and vision, or to remark upon the repetition of particular tropes, images, settings, or appearances by John Henries. A "world" may only come into articulatable being when there is a tenuous balance of difference, when the familiar and the unfamiliar are in agreement and seem to imply each other in the listener's imagination. Like a vibration.
While "world" implicitly connotes bigness, wholeness, totality, and otherwise exhaustive representation, this sense of kitchen-sink completeness tells only half the story; or, more to the point, the completeness associated with an artist-created "world" can only be recognized or sensed when we know what is probably within and possibly without that intimated totality. Aspects of artistic expression are necessary to establish and maintain, then, the designations of inside and outside, making "worlds" most fittingly known by their borders. It's the border's job to negotiate that balance of difference, to strike those right chords between the familiar and unfamiliar, the same and the not-so same.
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood's wider borders are first of all struck-off by the sounds and associations of the country music genre. Together, Case's Patsy Cline-esque voice, the Sadies' surreal spaghetti guitars, and a piano played by Garth Hudson, show us a world of danger, guilt, regret, displaced hearts, lost time and lost faith, several deaths, the matter-of-factness of animals, and reckoning. In other words, exactly what the contemporary moment shows us.
This is what I mean:
The saga of "Star Witness", the album's second song and the real triumph of the whole, begins by establishing its difference even from the record's other songs. The slow-moving whirr that marks the opening reverberates like sounds in a science-fiction movie -- a pinging that just barely repeats; a signal, a whistle. There's something other-worldly, whispery, and gauzy about the beginning of this song; fog, night, motion; there's an altogether entering effect. A seeming-whisper borders the beginning, while the end is made with a piano. With its slow echo and decline, its elementary chug-hunk, the piano seems to mark the end not just of a song, but of a story. A rural, churchy, Sunday School kind of story; a lesson, a fable. By emphasizing the beginning and the ending, by drawing attention, first, to a certain unfamiliar fog, and then by punctuating the song's conclusion by referencing, even subtly, the all-too-familiar notes of traditionalist fables, brackets are drawn around the song's inside, giving the middle, the "world" of the song, a representational identity.
This particular world expresses another border as well. There is an up-aboveness here, a perspective from which we are invited to look down, a place from where our imaginations seem to hover. The song imagines a witness in the stars, a consciousness that's not God, but god-ish. This is a consciousness, for example, that notices the heavy injustice and nothing-newness of a line like, "they don't even put on the siren". Distinct from the first-person recollection of the main vocals are the layered background vocals sung by Case herself and Kelly Hogan. These background voices mass like foggy ghost-faces, shimmering shadows in the upper left-hand corner of an imagined movie screen frame. Sonically, they create an overall sense of awareness, as the imagined ethereal positioning of the chorus shows us the where of this never-been-to place, the space and time of this "world". The wolves stalking "'round the town tonight" take on a kind of presence, as Case and Hogan's eerie surrounding voices, like those of Macbeth's three witches, evoke menace, fear, and desire. Theirs is a consciousness quite out of this world. As such, it is necessarily a consciousness out of time. Like the animals that have populated Case's last two records, who, in mythological terms, have gained access to vision, possessed the tone of pronouncements, gauged empathy, and have been similarly outside time, this witnessing mind has a biting sense of history.
There is a sense here that the dead whose story is told may after the fact -- outside time -- assume consciousness of his or her own passing. In "Star Witness" we encounter either one death, or two. Or maybe more. Or maybe what there is, is a sense of death. Whichever way we look at it, though, there is no direct line of narrative in this song, a song which begins by seeming to announce its intention to tell a story, to behave as a ballad. The song begins like this: "My true love drowned in a dirty old pan of oil / That did run from the block of a Falcon Sedan 1969 / The paper said '75." What is the story of this death? We don't really find out. Instead, the following stanzas are a collection of seemingly youthful simulacra, hints, murmurs, a sidewalk, a locked-up lot, the Fourth of July; a town at night, a woman or girl running and singing; wolves; desire. And then, finally, at the end of the song, she sings in a tone that is both wistful and passionate, which is to say, both futile and hopeful, "Don't let him die." But didn't he die already? In the Falcon Sedan? The lyrical content we find at the end of the song can not chronologically come after the words and content of the opening. These words should not chronologically be there.
This supplication does not make sense, unless of course the song's strange accomplishment is to effect a haunting, a carrying on and over of emotion and experience -- on and over, of course, in fierce opposition to the linear measurements of time. And this works, I think, because the world of the song does not represent literal history; rather, this is history understood through experience and perception. The world of "Star Witness" is in part composed of missing information and lost details. Despite the shadowy presence of an over-seeing historical consciousness, the song is replete with absences. Who is the "she" who runs and moves and sings? How many tonights are really happening here? Is this place rural or urban? Spaces are left open for us, listening from our couches and in our cars, to fill in, imagine, to do something and otherwise develop some stake.
The stake we develop is in large part defined by risk, and has a lot to do with time. In his memoir, Sonata for Jukebox, Geoffrey O'Brien talks about sound as being the most absorbent of mediums. It's a form, he says, for "soaking up histories and philosophical systems and physical surroundings and encoding them in something so slight as a single vocal quaver or icy harpsichord interjection." Case's voice can indeed soak up history. Her voice is depth that hints at more depth. It suggests both controlled containment and wild electricity. It lulls and ignites, which is to say, maybe, that her voice is real. Hers is a voice that strips and quakes, filling up our heads, not just our rooms. It takes up space. And in doing so, it can't help but disturb time.
While there is no direct narrative line in "Star Witness", a lot gets narrated. Case's voice is one for telling stories, for moving fragments of characterization and iconic glimpses from one place to another. When she sings, for example, "Hey pretty baby, get high with me / We can go to my sister's if we say we'll watch the baby", it seems as though a whole, complex, involved, and moving story has been told about something really good and probably doomed. And it is this both-ness of good and doom that characterizes the world of the song, and also characterizes whatever borders may be sensed around the whole of the album as well.
What we're really understanding as we recognize a "world" in some art form, when we see an unfamiliar, never-really-been-to place in that most familiar of places, our own heads, is ultimately something subtle about our real, everyday world. Such recognition, of course, tends to involve seeing the contradictions, paradoxes, and ambiguities relevant to negotiating the landscape of time in contemporary space. A song like this is a lulling and terrifying mix. Both a lullaby and a tragedy, its world reveals the likeness, the irrevocable similarity, of guilt and innocence. As bends in an accordion, guilt and innocence fold together, illustrating the degree to which the current cultural moment may be experienced as one of lost innocence and a growing consciousness of guilt's terrifying consequences.
* * *
The frequency on which Case's records reside and bumble is somewhat other. This is that other frequency, that quasi world of-and-for music where the unavoidable heart pain of-and-for existence finds expression, and where, importantly, listeners in cars or on couches may meet that expression with something close to honesty. Singers and songwriters associated with the country music genre have traditionally been lauded for their honesty, for their upfront-ness about all manner of pain. Abuse, addiction, betrayal, grief, loss -- think of Johnny Cash's prison tales, Loretta Lynn's everyday directness, Willie Nelson's tremolo, or Catherine Irwin's ache: all are identified in cultural reception by their willingness or compulsion to tell some kind of truth. And the truth, of course, has a propensity to be pretty bleak and awfully dark.
Case's reputation for writing "dark" songs precedes her. A Google search for "Neko Case" and "noir" yields over 38,000 hits, and while both love and lust inform her songs, she has no proper "love song". But, even and always in the darker tones there is light and there is vivacity. And such joy.
Or maybe it's not really in that breath between "a.m." and "alone", but that time waits only in retrospect, once the punch of "Alone, thank God" settles, sinks, and sort of bruises. Is smiled at. Maybe the breath is actually in the play of this sly and caustic wit; maybe the song's real pause isn't in the song itself, but in our heads when we feel the weird relief of that "thank God". While I'm not 100 percent sure if time pulls up at exactly this moment or that, in a pause that is heard or felt, I am sure that when time (the moment's path from moment to moment) has a songwriter's attention, even implicitly, then space may be left open for something unexpected to happen, something maybe as bewildering and tricky as time itself. In this instance, the unexpected and the possible take on the shape of humor. And humor, well, in a country song, is grace.
What we find then in the tone of this pair of lines -- "I leave the party at three a.m. / Alone, thank God" -- is neither a sneer nor a sigh, but is a pretty good joke about gratitude. Case, it seems, has a wicked sense of humor about how and when we might find ourselves experiencing some kind of relief or luck, and how such lucky moments of okayness or reprieve may be just those moments when we're able to breathe. And to laugh at ourselves. What I sense here too is a real foundational and underlying expression of thanks for a sense of humor at all, gratitude for this truly phenomenal and saving quality. And when we can, in the midst of something dark and foreboding, something of love for the devil even, find rest in humor, then humor and joy are made to feel like the very same thing. Which might be just as good, and worth some thanks itself.
Plus, don't forget that when she leaves the party at three a.m. she takes with her "a valium from the bride". So, you know.
To listen to a record and find ourselves in its world, as opposed to, say, losing ourselves in it, has everything to do with how we imagine and conceive of the real world and our places in it. This kind of finding can only be occasioned when we're willing to see ourselves in an historical sense, to recognize our own links in whatever chains of history we each understand.
Country music, of course, functions as a great charting and chaining of personal and national identities and histories, all, on some level in search of some semblance of home. Surely national identity and nostalgia can assert themselves in a myriad of positive and inspiring ways, and surely one of those ways is constituted by a fierce feeling against. There is in contemporary international consciousness a feeling against current concepts of nation and practices of patriotism, against inherited ills and legacies of harm. This feeling against can be conceived of as an awakening frequency. Case, I think, is involved in mythologizing this very process of waking up and waking's essential element of confession (for what we've done and taken for granted, for what we've believed and ignored, for what we've bought and how we've been bought, and how obliquely disappointing this all is).
The stories country music tends to tell and its attitudes toward its own stories seem especially relevant to the contemporary moment. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, as much a record of empathy as it is of mythology, suggests that the place of twang, the place in contemporary music culture of those shocks and shades of the country-minded voice, is to bear for us the weights and burdens of confession. Consider what a record such as Buck 65's Secret House Against the World sounds like. It's a hip-hop record and a country record, and in songs like "Blood of a Young Wolf" the banjo and pedal steel contribute more to the overall empathy produced than do the lyrics. To reach for and express this current moment is to know and engage with the past, and for someone like Case this is also an experience of utter complicity.
Country music allows for the voicing of, and is in large order defined by, guilt. While an album like Green Day's American Idiot, for example, can function as a powerful protest and can represent an impassioned and even righteous voice of resistance, the stance taken in the lyrics and the overall posture is one of embattlement. It's us against them. And while I do find in Fox Confessor Brings the Flood the beating heart of a struggling "us", I can not for the life of me identify a villain per se, a "them" in whose wake we should define "good" or "right". Case's placement of herself, or more accurately, a version of selfhood created by an attenuation of past and present, culture and genre, right there in the mix, in the throes of history passed and passing, with blood on her own jeans -- not just on the edge of a future -- strikes me as honest.
Our listening imaginations and our own notions of history and identity are invited to twist together with Case's voice, and this twisting brings us closer, maybe, to using the wide expanses and variations of history to do something, because the world -- as an idea and as a place within an old story -- is worth saving. Such complicity and confession, such humor and empathy, may just work towards creating some sad but lifting redemption. Just air; more than air.
In the album's title song, Case asks what happens "when the death of your civilization precedes you." In these days of warming, melting, storming, flooding, and war, this loss, this greater death does feel like a real possibility. There is the specter of specters hanging over these songs. Country music, of course, is often and overwhelmingly about loss, the ends of things. But in this loss there is something else too. Something about how lived experience eventually or hopefully leads to some kind of wisdom, some kind of newness that's already old; always, too, it's somehow a celebration of that learning, those really bad mistakes, skinned knees, and washed-out nights, faithful, always, to the promise of it all being somehow grossly worth it. Which is a kind of mourning. And what the music of Neko Case imagines and promises is in fact a world of mourning.
Michelle Banks is originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia and although she would like to, she doesn't live there anymore. She teaches English and Film Studies at a couple of Canadian universities and looks out her window at Detroit.