A quarter-century in the business probably marks a good moment for a retrospective. For Neko Case, that moment comes as the digital-only collection Wild Creatures, enhanced online with additional animated artwork and comments from colleagues and friends. A greatest hits collection always carries a whiff of self-indulgence, as the added material marks both a boon to fans and a self-motivated sense of celebration. Fortunately, Case’s songs can carry the weight of such a project, reminding us of her strength as a songwriter and a vocalist.
Wild Creatures contains 23 tracks, including one new song, “Oh, Shadowless”, which adroitly blends the pretty with the abrasive. Fans might enjoy bickering about what was included and what was left off (all compilations invite such debate), but there’s little to fault here. Virginian could use some representation, but otherwise, each album gets its share of tracks. From the opening organ of “I’m an Animal”, the set never lets up. Finding highlights poses its own puzzle, with a variety of moods from “Man” (with some of “Animal’s” ideas recurring) to the emotionally challenging “I Wish I Was the Moon”. Track after track feels like a peak.
The set feels like a missed opportunity in a way, though. Over her career, Case has shifted her sound. Her early albums’ indebtedness to Americana gave way to a more indie rock-based sound. Some of that change is most noticeable outside of her solo work, particularly in the power-pop of the New Pornographers, but her albums make the shift. Case never makes a wild left turn, but listening through her discography, it’s hard to imagine tracks like Furnace Room Lullaby’s title track or “Set out Running” showing up on a more recent release.
The scattershot sequencing of Wild Creatures means that listeners don’t get to hear Case following her artistic path. More than that, it gives the collection a willy-nilly feel, as if Case picked out her favorite numbers, chucked them onto a tracklist as she thought of them, and went with that. Even the title track – from 2013’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You – disappears into the album’s middle. If it was meant to be an emblematic statement, it has to do so from an awkward position.
On the upside, the running order highlights Case’s strengths as an artist in any musical setting. Critics wore out the word “chanteuse” in the early 2000s, but it’s still easy to hear why. Case has a big voice (one even more remarkable in concert), and she knows how to deploy it whether she sings an angry rocker or a powerful ballad. She also puts her personality to work with her smart, effective lyrics embedded in memorable melodies. She could have succeeded in Nashville or Seattle or Durham, but she took off by playing with all of those sounds and a little more. With songs from throughout her career mixed, Case gives us a good sense of the quintessential elements of her work.
For that reason, Wild Creatures makes for a fantastic listen. Besides the art and notes available at Case’s website, though, it’s hard to separate this digital-only release from easily accessed playlists, except for having Case’s stamp. The compilation naturally feels less essential than the albums it draws from. Still, it certainly succeeds in providing a long stretch of excellent music and a reminder of Case’s artistic vision.