The already well circulated story tied to Neko Case’s “Hell-On,” her first solo album in five years, deals with loss, but not the kind you might suspect.
While encamped in sessions for the recording in Sweden, Case received a middle-of-the-night call that her Vermont farmhouse had burned to the ground. Undeterred, she cut vocals the next day for one of the more inviting tunes on the new album, as well as one of the most pop friendly confections she has ever put her name to.
It’s title? “Bad Luck.”
Oddly enough, “Bad Luck,” empowered by a vintage girl-group chorus that’s guaranteed to stick in your brain, is perhaps the brightest thing on the record. Elsewhere, “Hell-On” is an album of weary rage. You hear it at once as the chattering, kalimba-like melody on the album-opening title tune sets up what sounds like an ominous nursery rhyme. Then Case enters to, pardon the real life parallel, light the fuse.
“My voice is straight garroting wire,” she sings almost as a lullaby. “A stolen mile of fingerprints peeled the quiet from the dunes, captured and re-spooled as ruin to be used.
At a different time.”
Uh, honey? Maybe we shouldn’t leave the kids with Aunt Neko this weekend.
The chill is pervasive but purposeful. A quick, noisy guitar snap sets up a big beat melody that balances twang and reverb at the onset of “My Uncle’s Navy.” The story is a cold one, though — a remembrance of a vicious male predator from childhood whose presence continues thanks largely to those who abetted him through the years.
“I never wondered what made him that way,” Case recounts. “Bullies are not born, they’re pressed into a form, and I hated those who gave him access to our days, the ones who did nothin’.”
Case has numerous collaborators in her corner throughout “Hell-On,” including k.d. lang and Laura Viers, with whom she cut a stunning trio album in 2016. Help also comes from long-time pals Kelly Hogan and The New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman as well as newer contemporaries like Beth Ditto of Gossip (who bolsters the sister-warrior anthem “Winnie”) and Screaming Trees alumnus Mark Lanegan (who co-pilots the entrancing duet “Curse of the I-5 Corridor”). Case produced the album with assistance from Björn Yttling of Peter Björn and John.
But the record’s steadfast intensity and introspection are purely products of Case’s vision, right down to the cover art that seems to take its cue from the singer’s well publicized misfortune. It pictures Case wearing a crown of cigarettes with the album title not so much tattooed below her neck as branded. That would explain the flames. Then again, so would the 12 masterful songs that make up this stirring pop manifesto.