Neko Case: Middle Cyclone
Songwriting siren’s engrossing exorcism (and celebration) of inner demons
On the album cover she’s standing astride a muscle car, leaning forward, crouched and fierce with a sword in one hand—Neko Case certainly isn’t afraid to play up her '70s centerfold mystique. But despite having already been made into a cartoon siren by the Adult Swim folks, after six albums, she’s still in no danger of being reduced to a caricature. Middle Cyclone only heightens the sense of danger and defiance surrounding her persona. Formerly queasy about in indulging in love songs, Middle Cyclone obsesses over the topic in all its forms. In keeping with the leering character on the album’s cover, Case is here to say that when she’s involved, it’s a dangerous game.
She wastes no time in establishing the theme that she could devour you at any moment, using the gently percolating “This Tornado Loves You” to compare love to a traumatic weather event—unwieldy and powerful, with equal potential to soothe and scar. Over the strings and lovely acoustic guitar strums of “The Next Time You Say Forever,” she threatens to punch her lover in the face for making promises he can’t keep, and she’s even more blunt on the Byrdsy “Some People Have a Lot of Nerve,” a track that pulses with man-eater threats and you-should-have-known-better rejoinders. For the haunting “Vengeance is Sleeping,” she adopts a male persona, anthropomorphizing love into an animal that has to be tracked and dragged back home, with the song’s delicate finger-picking providing contrast to her desperation and brutality.
Having assembled a piano orchestra by cramming as many working pianos as she could find on Craigslist into the Vermont barn that served as the studio for part of the album, Case makes atmosphere and ambiance a priority, allowing the album’s 15 tracks to unravel in quick succession. But while few songs even reach the three-minute mark, she still allows herself ample room to stretch out. A cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” uses that freedom to pile up piano parts, just as the multi-part “Polar Nettles” whirs through chirping robins, seasick MIDI sax solos, and marching drums, creating a dream-like cascade of death and obsession. She even closes the album with 31 minutes of spring peepers singing. But while M. Ward, Garth Hudson and members of Giant Sand, Los Lobos and Calexico turn up to round off the album’s obtuse edges, this is Case’s show, her storytelling remains the clear centerpiece around which the tones and textures shift.
Less of a departure and more of a confirmation and deepening of everything she’s been exploring over the last 10 years, Case has never sounded quite so compelling as a storyteller, unleashing the full range of her humor, defiance, and despair. Like Loretta, Dolly, and Lucinda before her, she retains her core aesthetic no matter what stylistic garb she adopts, translating her ache through shades of gospel, Motown and surprisingly sophisticated pop. But unlike those songwriters, Case displays a cagey self-awareness that informs every creative turn she takes, revealing and pulling back parts of her contrite yet confrontational persona just before you can take them for granted. That makes each new revelation more potent, and when she offers the title track as an uneasy conclusion that despite her threats and warnings, she needs love as much as anyone else, it’s startling. Naked and vulnerable, with only an acoustic guitar and tinkling music box to hide her frailties, it crystallizes in one moment what makes her so special: she’s tangible enough to touch, exotic enough to be just out of reach.
Listen to Neko Case's "People Got a Lotta Nerve" from Middle Cyclone: