I don’t fully understand the effect that Neko Case’s voice has on me. It is mystical and potent, a controlled substance made of sound. All I know is that when I hear it, I feel it down to my cells. That effect reaches its zenith on Middle Cyclone, her sensational 2009 album. The album doesn’t rest on her voice alone, though. That voice stands atop a foundation of incredible songwriting, nervy production, and excellent musicianship.
I’ll get to all that, but first I want to talk about the voice some more. It’s an extraordinary instrument, capable of ramping from a hesitant tenderness to a thrilling clarion call in moments. Listen to “Red Tide” — she starts out narrating, with just a bit of suspense as she trails her tone at the end of lines, and then stretches out the word “line.” The “ah-ah-ah-ah”s amp up the tension, and she delivers the second verse with just a bit more intensity than the first. Then the instruments build to another verse where she declaims the words with vibrant authority, reaching an emotional peak on “remember.”
But it turns out that’s not the peak after all! She ascends the bridge, hitting the highest notes of the song so far, then sliding down before stabbing up to another high note and finishing on “sinister”, which sounds not only sinister but outright threatening.
By the final lines of the song, she is at her full-throated best, investing the words with such power and passion that I cannot doubt she really is singing of life and death, of thrusting a defiant life in the face of death. She saves the highest note for the final line of the song, and then returns to “ah-ah-ah-ah”s whose tone says, “just try and argue with that, I dare you.”
I’m isolating her voice here, which isn’t quite fair, as the song gains plenty of its power from its marvelous arrangement and its chilling poetry. When all those things come together, the alchemy of Neko Case music reaches its ultimate heights. It’s just that the voice itself is so powerful to me — it pulls up feelings from inside me like threads, stretching them out and leaving me changed.
The voice works beautifully when it’s barely adorned, as in “Middle Cyclone”, but the album has much more instrumental creativity on offer. Famously, Case had turned her Vermont barn into a home for wayward pianos. A couple of tuners got six of them into playable shape, and the resulting “piano orchestra” appears on several tracks, most affectingly on “Don’t Forget Me”, a gentle Harry Nilsson cover.
Elsewhere we find Neko accompanied by custom music boxes, such as the one that chimes off-kilter into “The Next Time You Say Forever”, setting the song askew, setting up prickles at the back of the neck that the droning cellos do nothing to assuage, and lending an uneasy authenticity to Case’s promise in the lyrics: “The next time you say forever / I will punch you in your face / Just because you don’t believe it / Doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it.”
There are plenty of genuinely avant-garde moments on this album, even setting aside the thirty minutes of cricket chirps that comprise its final track. But even when her vocal gems are set in traditional filigree, like the Simon and Garfunkel-style guitar of “Vengeance Is Sleeping”, spine-tingling estrangement still abounds, thanks to the lyrics.
So let’s talk about those lyrics. Here are some from “Vengeance”:
I didn’t know what a brute I was
I dipped my cigarette and rode the bus
Vengeance built me hastily
And I dragged a clanging notion I was nobody, nobody
All I had was my invention
And my love invented all of you
Oh, look what thoughts can do
What thoughts can do
If you’re not by now dead and buried
You’re most certifiably married
My god. I kept trying to trim that quote down, and then kept restoring it. “Nope,” I would say. “I need more of it.” There’s an Emily Dickinson quote that I love, and it applies here:
If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
Neko Case’s lyrics take the top of my head off. They’re enhanced, too, by the stories she told on her episode of The Hilarious World Of Depression podcast. She left a home of alcoholism, drug abuse, physical abuse, and neglect at 15 years old. She’d get loaded on whatever drugs she could find and ride the city bus around town all day. Later, after dialing down the drugs, she’d tour relentlessly to keep herself too busy to feel what she was feeling.
When asked what she was tamping down, she replies, “Anxiety, restlessness. Needing to be loved, and seeing that as a weakness.”
And here again, her poetry crystallizes that experience, this time a lyric from “Middle Cyclone”:
I can’t give up acting tough
It’s all that I’m made of
Can’t scrape together quite enough
To ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love
She goes on, later in that same quote: “I wanna be loved, and like, held on to. You know what I mean? And part of that is being young and part of that is being an actual… human being, who is also an animal species. There are things we cannot live without.”
From “I’m An Animal”:
You could say it’s my instinct
Yes, I still have one
There’s no time to second-guess it
Yes, there are things that I’m still so afraid of
But my courage is roaring like the sound of the sun
‘Cause it’s vain about its mane and will reveal them to no one
I’m an animal
You’re an animal, too
Here’s the thing, though. In the podcast, she talks about being faced with these realizations in 2010. This album came out the year before. These songs are the parts of Neko Case that she wasn’t quite yet ready to hear, expressing themselves through her music to speak truths that hadn’t quite reached the left side of her brain.
They have the force of prophecy, and the profound mythical resonance of dreams. They gather strength when set into Case’s melodies and the arrangements she co-crafts with Paul Rigby. And then, when she channels them through that phenomenal instrument in her throat, they become that loving tornado, that killer whale, that magpie to the morning whose warning cannot be denied. They speak with the voices of goddesses.