Neko Case is a busy woman. Between singing in the New Pornographers and various other projects, most recently 2016’s collaboration case/lang/viers, her solo albums come out more infrequently than most artists. For those with patience, each new Case album is a treat. Sure, it’s going to include dark, gothic country tales of woe and strange songs that don’t follow typical pop songwriting conventions right next to more traditionally catchy tracks, but it’s a treat all the same.
Hell-On includes songs that fit all of those descriptions. It follows the same basic outline as her records since she refined her sound way back on 2002’s Blacklisted. But as always, there are wrinkles. This album contains two duets with baritone-voiced male singers, which is new for Case, at least on one of her solo albums. “Sleep All Summer” gives Eric Bachmann, of Archers of Loaf, Crooked Fingers, and briefly a member of Case’s touring band, the spotlight to the point where gets the first few lines of the song. Musically, it’s a slow, spare but warm piano ballad that puts the focus squarely on the two singers. In the pre-chorus, Bachmann sings the rueful line, “I would change for you, but baby / That doesn’t mean I’m gonna be a better man.” And then the song is anchored by the chorus lament, “Why won’t you fall back in love with me?” It’s lovely and sad simultaneously, which describes a lot of Case’s songs.
More interesting but less warm is the seven-minute “Curse of the I-5 Corridor”, which opens with a minute of almost unaccompanied singing from Case and Mark Lanegan. For a brief moment the song sounds like a follow-up to 2013’s striking a cappella Case song “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” But then the drums, bass, piano, and guitars come in and the song becomes an odyssey pushed along by a strong, low piano riff and Case’s impressionistic reminisces. Her words tumble over each other and Lanegan matches her on runs like, “And I’ll see you in our old home where I’m always scared to go / Sturdy garbage mouths making wet cigarette butts and used tires to be poor as the anchor that makes us so sure.” The song goes on to wonder if Lanegan’s character is a time traveler like the rumors say and other musings, but always returns to the refrain where Case says, “Maybe I should go home alone tonight.” It’s a knotty, fascinating song that finds a solid instrumental base and lets the two vocalists run roughshod over tempo and melodic concerns before giving way to the band over its final two minutes to let them jam out on the main piano riff.
Of the more pop-oriented songs on Hell-On, the most successful is “Last Lion of Albion”, which is driven by a great, uneven drum pattern that hits the snare on beat three (of four) and then follows that with another hit a half-beat earlier in the next measure. This gives the song a sense of herky-jerky forward motion and Case wisely keeps it going throughout the whole song, verses and chorus. It also has a catchy, very wordy chorus with excellent harmony vocals courtesy of k.d. lang. On top of that, it’s a Neko Case song that prominently features animal-oriented lyrics. Animals always seem to show up somewhere on Case’s albums and are often among her best songs.
Less successful is “Bad Luck”, which is catchy but less interesting lyrically. Case has a set of bad luck occurrences she returns to multiple times as the chorus, but the conclusion “Could’ve stopped any one of these things but that would have been bad luck,” is worth an amused smile once, not four or five times. It does feature the fun line, “so I died and went to work”, though. “Gumball Blue” is a slow, low rock song with a nice, quiet vocal performance from Case and one terrific line: “Sometimes when there’s smoke, it’s just a smoke machine.” But otherwise the song is mostly musically inert and has a limp refrain.
The rest of the album hits all sorts of Neko Case sweet spots. “Hell-On” opens the album with a creepy music box-like intro that blooms into an equally unsettling hollow body electric guitar waltz and features Case reflecting on God. “God is not a contract, or a guy…God is a lusty tire fire.” She then moves on to reflect on the quality of her own voice with more unsettling metaphors. After two minutes of this, the song then hits a chorus, repeating “Nothing quite so poison / As a promise” several times before sliding into a brief, noisy bridge and then settling back into the creepy waltz, completely with an amazing whispered warning, “Be careful.”
The album finishes out equally strongly with “Pitch or Honey”. Ominous low piano notes and subtle electronic-sounding drums start it off in a bruising minor key and Case states, disconcertingly, “I use major chords / To make this a sadder song / An effective manipulation / Moonlight reflected is many times stronger.” After more than two minutes, the tempo picks up, drums come in, and the song does indeed shift into a major key. And Case leaves us with one more great line, “It’s the gift that keeps on getting / It’s the shrapnel from your wedding.”
In between there are all sorts of other interesting pieces. “Halls of Sarah” is quiet and features wonderful backing harmonies from Case regulars Kelly Hogan and Rachel Flotard as well as Laura Veirs and a surprising baritone sax part. “Dirty Diamond” starts off gothic country; dark and slow and ominous, although brightening in the refrain. It has one of the album’s most evocative lines, “I remember running chest high / Through the steppe grass / At the dawn of man.” “Oracle of the Maritimes” is similarly dark and ominous and tense. Case’s voice is so well-suited to tension that the song gets by almost entirely on tense music and mood.
If we’re going to rank Neko Case albums, then Hell-On might not be at the very top of the list. But Case is always a fascinating singer and songwriter and that is still in effect here. As usual, there are just enough catchy pop songs to draw in casual listeners but the bulk of the material on the album is weird and idiosyncratic. I imagine that every time a new Case album comes out several thousand new potential fans get drawn in by a catchy single, only for three-fourths of them to be driven away by once they hear the rest of the record. But those that stick around become really passionate fans. This is entirely conjecture though. The point is those passionate fans should be very happy with Hell-On even if they don’t rate it as her absolute best album.