Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
It’s been fascinating to watch Neko Case shift her musical focus over the past two decades, shifting from a talented dark-hued country chanteuse to an increasingly experimental indie pop auteur. That evolution continues on Hell-On, her first solo album in five years and her most complex creative endeavor yet.
Case has been plenty busy during that stretch, continuing her longtime association with The New Pornographers and joining fellow sirens k.d. Lang and Laura Veirs in 2016 for a successful album and tour. But Case was also plotting her next move, gravitating further left artistically for the multifaceted and oblique Hell-On. Although only a dozen cuts spread out over 50 minutes, the album feels sprawling and expansive. Case’s plentiful lyrics overspill into images that are confusing and likely understood best by the singer. On the opening title track she sings “My voice a straight garroting wire/ A stolen mile of fingerprints/ Peeled up quiet from their dunes/ captured and respooled as ruin,” which is part of just one verse out of five that are equally as confounding.
The songs — at times pieces might be a more appropriate term — were layered over multiple studios and finally tinkered into shape in Sweden by co-producer Bjorn Yttling from Peter, Bjorn and John. While some like “Last Lion of Albion” have beats and melodies enhanced by backing vocals (Lang, Veirs and longtime associate Kelly Hogan contribute) that are approachable, most are less easily absorbed. Threads of prog intersect with minor key scales, multiple overdubbed instruments that come and go and Case’s opaque concepts, best described as “enigmatic.”
If everything was as catchy as early single “Bad Luck,” with the telling words “trying to pass riddles for poetry,” this would be an intriguing step forward in Case’s ever-evolving career. But as soon as the next selection, the 7-minute plus Mark Lanegan assisted duet “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” things get frustratingly snarled. It’s the rare song that can support lyrics of “I fear I smell extinction/ In the folds of this Novocain age coming on” and even with Lanegan’s baritone, this one, like many here, buckles under the weight of that obtuse vision.
Crooked Fingers’ Eric Bachmann guests, singing and playing piano on his own composition “Sleep All Summer,” and the relative directness of that melody — the album’s lone non-Case penned or co-written tune — stands in contrast to most of this disc’s far more tangled tunes.
Case delivers everything with her beautifully smooth husky voice. There is no questioning the amount of thought, preparation and work she has put into constructing these tracks, especially lyrically. Kudos for pushing outside her already elastic envelope, creating music that doesn’t adhere to standard templates. Fans willing to follow these winding, often convoluted melodies and thoughts may enjoy the ride. But there is a chilly, somewhat detached vibe that often overtakes the material, making it a challenge to unpack each of these dense selections on an album that’s easier to appreciate and admire than enjoy.