The notion of rock and pop music as a young person’s game persists, even as a multitude of artists push toward the latter half of middle age while maintaining clearly viable voices. I suspect it’s because so many of the foundational topics of pop music — flaring infatuation, devastating heartbreak, fierce bucking against authority — are bolstered by the passions of youth. It remains true that some sentiments still sound best when delivered by someone with fewer miles on their odometer, but isn’t it reasonable to assume the wisdom an artist accrues can inform songwriting and performance in valuable ways? Maybe it’s still better to burn out than fade away, but a prolonged smolder is an yet superior option.
It’s now been a little more than twenty years since Neko Case took her first spins as a lead singer and quickly moved on to music released under her own name. From there, it’s been a steady march to beloved indie icon status. And through it all, she’s remained fully committed to an uncommon grounded sincerity, honoring collaborative commitments that her career seemed to outgrow and generally delivering a series of fuss-free recordings that merged emotional openness with thorny poetry, pinned to a melancholy tunefulness marinated in classic country music twang.
Hell-On is the seventh studio album that strictly belongs to Case, and the first billed as such in five years. If the layoff could reasonably inspire fretting that Case’s creative impulses were softening a bit, the songs offer a sharp, immediate reassurance the her power as an artist persists.
The opening lines of the album make it clear Case is battle-ready. “God is not a contract or a guy/ God is an unspecified tide,” Case sings on the title cut, ahead of settling on the metaphor she finds even more satisfying. “God is a lusty tire fire,” she insists, and it’s immediately a convincing theological argument. One of Case’s most notable skills as a songwriter is making every assertion resound with a compelling authenticity. Her assertions are plain and true, even as they’re often burrito-wrapped in thorny poetry. Without ever tilting toward the esoteric or elusive, Case often seems to be a conduit of a shared but hidden inner being of humanity. She unlocked mysteries without sharing the specifics of her epiphanies, confident that every will catch up if she’s transparent with her emotions. It’s akin to the way Bob Dylan once revealed the world while keeping his cards pressed so close to his chest that they were inside his vest.
Unlike many of those skilled songwriting predecessors, Case plays well with others, and the album is often a testament to the value of camaraderie. She includes a pair of duets, including one in which she covers the Crooked Fingers song “Sleep All Summer,” recruiting the band’s lead singer Eric Bachman to join her. Case’s crystalline vocal precision and Bachman’s hearty crooning makes the new version perversely and marvelously sound like a 21st century “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” the piercing intimacy of wounded love rendered as grand drama.
Tightly controlled drama is an unexpected Case specialty on Hell-On. “Halls of Sarah” is recognizably Case’s refined handwork, yet it also seems inches away from becoming a Stevie Nicks epic. And “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” a duet with Mark Lanegan, has the strange confessional power of a bruising memoir (“In the current of your life/ I was an eyelash in the shipping lanes”). It’s heavy, and yet light as air, buoyed up by a bright, almost offhand expertise, a developed knack for making musical miracles. The alchemy is so powerful that Case can somehow squeeze profundity out of the track “Bad Luck,” even at it simultaneously recalls classic girl group pop and Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.”
Case has been plying this particular trade for quite some time, and Hell-On is right in line with the trajectory she’s long been riding. And yet it still had the surge of discovery to it, a freshness representing a voice undimmed. Let others succumb to career mortality. Case might have it in her to go on making great records forever.