Neko Case’s fourth studio album inches ever so closer towards greatness. If she’s not there already.
Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again, but that message doesn’t quite hit you until you actually experience it for yourself. “That’s why I don’t come back here, that’s why they spit out my name,” muses Neko Case on “The Needle Has Landed”, while stuck in traffic on I-5 on the outskirts of her former hometown of Tacoma, Washington, her foot resting on the brake, watching Sea-Tac bound airplanes drawing “a cage in the air,” pausing to acknowledge “poor Spanaway” adjacent to the slow-moving freeway. A major cog in the Vancouver, British Columbia indie scene in the late 1990s, and a Chicago resident of late, the lady’s led an interestingly nomadic musical life, from punkabilly drummer, to everyone’s favorite member of the New Pornographers, to becoming one of the most celebrated independent country artists of the last six years, and sitting there crawling on the painfully slow Interstate trying to make her way back to her childhood home, all that’s on her mind is the sense that her beloved Pacific Northwest had lost its soul over the past decade or so. “If I knew then what’s so obvious now,” she croons lovingly, like a woman to a deceased former lover, “you’d still be here, baby.”
Arriving nearly four years after her stunning Blacklisted in 2002 (her stopgap 2004 live album notwithstanding), Fox Confessor Brings the Flood employs the same ensemble she used on Blacklisted (The Sadies, Howe Gelb, Calexico’s Joey Burns and John Convertino, Jon Rauhouse, longtime collaborator Brian Connelly), but heads in a slightly different musical direction. If Blacklisted was a brilliantly-executed exercise in mood, Fox Confessor, co-produced by Case and Darryl Neudorf (he of New Pornographers notoriety), is not only busier than the minimal Blacklisted, but its sound is cozier, and despite her increasingly tender vocals, the plucky Case still keeps us at an arm’s length, her chilly, trademark reverb still present, but not overdone. Bolstered by such new guest musicians as The Band’s Garth Hudson on organ, and backing vocalist Rachel Flotard (she of the criminally underrated Seattle band Visqueen), the numerous hired hands provide a sumptuous, varied backdrop for Case’s vocals, making for her most musically rich album to date.
The feeling of displacement on “The Needle Has Landed” is a recurring theme on an album that’s as decidedly enigmatic as its title. She might be sounding more torch than twang on this album, but k.d. lang she’s not; this Kitty Wells has claws. “The most tender place in my heart is for strangers,” she sings on the darkly majestic, Byrds-meets-Morricone “Hold On, Hold On”, adding self-effacingly, “I know it’s unkind, but my own blood is much too dangerous.”
For the most part, Case remains as abstruse a songwriter as ever, her free-form compositions often eschewing the traditional country song structure to the point where they’re not country at all, her lyrics dense, and her imagery indelible. More than ever before, our attention is gradually drawn from Case’s unmistakable, smooth-as-silk voice to her lyrics, where Case begins to display a Nick Cave-like command of the art. Animal themes continue to surface in her songs, from surreal, mythological conjurations in the title track that foretell doom, to snapshots of the onset of dementia in “Dirty Knife” (“He sang nursery rhymes to paralyze/The wolves that eddy out the corner of his eyes”), to obscure metaphors (“Lion’s Jaws”), to the pessimistic life lesson told in the gentle, yet increasingly ominous waltz of “Little Sparrow”. On the more human side of things, “Margaret vs. Pauline”’s tale of envy is accentuated by Case’s fluid, sympathetic wordplay: “Her love pours like a fountain/Her love steams like rage/Her jaw aches from wanting and she's sick from chlorine/But she'll never be as clean/As the cool side of satin, Pauline.”
Nowhere is Case’s growth more apparent than on “Star Witness”, her finest song since “Deep Red Bells”. A spellbinding teen tragedy ballad in the great tradition of the Shangri-La’s and J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, delivered with that Lynchian twist that Case has always done so well, it begins with a blunt description of the aftermath of a car accident (“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”), Case’s character’s gaze drawn to the smaller, inconsequential details of the scene, the images we always seem to remember the most: “There’s glass in the thermos, and blood on my jeans/Nickels and dimes of the Fourth of July roll off in a crooked line.” The second verse goes back in time to a conversation between the two lovers that encapsulates the feeling of teenage passion perfectly (“The look on your face yanks my neck on the chain”), while Case’s gorgeous refrains are both elegiac and lilting. The song returns to the present, the protagonist alone amidst the wreckage (“Go on, go on scream and cry/You're miles from where anyone will find you”), concluding with a combination of indelible imagery and lonesome desperation: “My nightgown sweeps the pavement…Please, don’t let him die.”
Case could have easily gone for a more middle-of-the-road sound on her new record, but true to form, she seems to relish the little imperfections as much as the sublime, shimmering moments, a great example being a minute and a half into “That Teenage Feeling”, where the drums and rhythm guitar sloppily fall out of sync for a few seconds before righting themselves, like a tipsy driver briefly losing control, only to be jolted sober. The exuberant rendition of the traditional spiritual “John Saw That Number” is both joyous and impassioned (enough to make us crave an album of Gospel covers), a brief respite from Fox Confessor’s predominantly pensive mood.
Her old haunts in the Pacific Northwest might have changed, but Case’s gradual evolution into a premier singer-songwriter has been even more substantial, and today, those early Vancouver days a distant memory, her marriage of the retro and the modern is in peak form. While she might not be the most prolific artist, taking such a long time to follow up a 40-minute CD with a 35-minute disc, with albums as consistently spellbinding as Case’s, we’ll remain entranced, anxiously awaiting the next opportunity to hear that voice one more time.