[INDIE] “Just when you think the rage has cooled in your veins, there’s a brand new flavor that fucking beats your head against the wall every day,” singer-songwriter Neko Case told Pitchfork’s Senior Editor, Jillian Mapes, in an interview earlier this year. Case, who’ll perform at Babeville’s Asbury Hall on Wednesday, September 26, was reminiscing about the various trials she’d endured leading up to and during the making of her latest, Hell On (ANTI-), not the least of which was finding out that her Vermont farmhouse had burned down while she was in Sweden, recording with Peter Björn and John’s Björn Yttling producing. There was also an unsettling series of episodes with a stalker, leaving her feeling helpless with the structure of our judicial system (not to mention broke from legal fees and looking mighty strange to a local VT news outlet when she denied her house had burned, hoping the address wouldn’t be revealed). The fire was born of natural causes, which has allowed Case — who’s technically homeless for a spell — a reasoning with which to write it off. Seeing her experience as sandwiched between other, more colossal disasters (flooding in Puerto Rico, wildfires in California) has helped quell her anger and loss, but despite the hard luck circumstance, Hell On isn’t at all mired in self pity. It may indeed be a more prickly set than its predecessor, 2013’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, but the issues she wrestles with therein speak to us all, throwing shade at a world in which women remain shafted by a patriarchal system while spirituality and romance repeatedly come up short.
There’s an ominous tone to the title track/opener, set off by a creepy kalimba loop, in which she likens God to, “a lusty tire fire,” while also playing with the deity’s perceived gender. Still, Case has always had a healthy respect for forces which remain unseen, noting that God is “an unspecified tide” and that “you cannot time it’s tables” while also reminding that her voice merely makes her, “an agent of the natural world” — so, y’know, don’t shoot the messenger. Thus begins her descent down a bunch of new musical rabbit holes, permeating Hell On with a welcome air of freshness that began loosely taking shape in the wake of the collaborative Case/Lang/Veirs album (with fellow songwriters k.d. Lang and Laura Veirs) in 2016. The left-field ideas of Yttling work well to push her beyond the sonic comfort zone that’s framed her output for the last dozen-or-so years, often with triumphant results. The vintage electronic percussion nudging along the single “Bad Luck” might initially seem silly, but the percolating Casio sound ends up making for sarcasm when juxtaposed against a narrative about being screwed no matter how you play your cards – it’s comic relief, and it’s also probably the catchiest track Case has ever released as a solo artist. Rather than traffic in explicit rage, she asks daunting questions and searches for answers, utilizing male and female collaborators en route – Mark Lanegan and former band-mate Eric Bachman turn up to dwell on heartbreak and bad decisions (“Sleep All Summer,” “Curse of the I-5 Corridor”) while Beth Ditto adds vocals to a gender-reversed sailor’s story (“Winnie”). k.d. Lang harmonizes beautifully on the deceptively sweet sounding “Last Lion of Albion,” which foretells nature’s revenge on a world that underestimates her power while our narrator looks on in delight. Hell On is a powerful portrait of personal quandary told through a historical lens, but despite Case’s penchant for hiding behind thick language, it’s also extremely relatable — soothing, somehow. At a time when many feel disenfranchised and unable to advocate for their own needs, Case lends her engaging, gorgeous pipes and oddball musical instincts to the debate about how we landed in this precarious spot, subtly taking the blame off of our universal shortcomings and placing it back on a system that’s destined to fail. Thao Nguyen, of Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, will open.