Neko Case is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside of a voice. The more confident she has grown as a songwriter and singer over the years, the less clear her intentions, the more obscure her references, the more involuted her song structures. There is no explaining “Hell-On,” the title track to her new album, unless you are somehow blessed with an intuitive understanding of lines like this:
Just at sorrow’s waterline
I drape you on tomorrow’s plate
Ferrous, metal marrow spilling
Not yours but mine
I’m an agent of the natural world
Say what? But: keep listening. You won’t understand it any better but you might grow to understand that understanding is besides the point. Case is indeed an agent of the natural world, otherwise known as a force of nature, and there is something in her haunted melodies and cryptic utterances that command not merely respect but something approaching exaltation. “Hell-On” begins like an oddball Waitsian waltz, tip-toes through an unremitting series of puzzling declarations before shifting time signature and tone at 1:52 and again at 2:24 before finding its way back to 3/4 time at 2:54 for a finish that matches the deliberately sung, vaguely off-kilter opening section. You listen once and you have little idea where you are or what she’s doing. Any sense it begins to acquire with repeated listens is sub-rational at best. She seems so determined in her opacity that she swallows the title phrase of the song beyond recognition (the lyrics at this point [3:27] go: “Nature can’t amend its ways/Boils hell-on and then replays”)—as a listener, then, your not knowing what she’s talking about is compounded by your not even apprehending the sounds she’s making.
A lesser artist might lose me here. (Alas, we live in a world dominated by lesser artists.) Neko is the real thing. I haven’t yet had the chance to listen to the entire album but what I’ve heard so far has wowed me; I’m pretty sure this is not nearly the best song on the album, but it’s the available free and legal MP3 (via KEXP) and you should still have it. Then go on to Bandcamp and listen to the entire album. Furthermore: please consider the radical act of buying the actual album for actual money (it’s only $8), in support of actual music.