Look, if you take a solo-album break for 5 years, people expect a lot! Sure, that Poweralbum with K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs was great but it wasn’t enough for all of our cravings. So, when the first songs of “Hell-On” were released and were great, I was so excited but also scared that it was one of those ‘oh, the first singles are great but the rest is not’. Oh, but it is and I can hear that sigh (and jubilee) of relief all over the world.
“Hell-On” is absolutely gorgeous, it’s riveting, it’s exciting, it’s full of cool guest stars which show again that if you want to do a duet, do it with Neko Case because her voice fits everyone’s voice and adds so many layers. Even more so, “Hell-On” is a typical Neko Case album in that it has a lot to say in beautiful images and such a beautiful way with words.
And me, I am not a mess
I am a wilderness, yes
The album is an ode to the things that get lost on our way forward, for better or worse. Quite often, there is a sadness to the wastelands we leave in wake of our own evolution. In “The I5 Corridor” there are hints of an old romance that still could feel fresh but doesn’t and it’s such a great country song (also thanks to Mark Lanegan, who is such a graceful duet partner). It has the cigarettes and the booze and something sexy and something sad.
You were a good man before you knew it
And I’m not vain enough to think that
I’d have been good for you if I’d stayed
In the current of your life
I was an eyelash in the shipping lanes
In “Bad Luck”, Case shows her grim humour. It’s like 2018’s “Ironic” but without sad dudes explaining us for decades how it’s not ironic because Case simply invents new ways of bringing old rituals and superstitions to life.
The cover symbolized (in Neko Case’s words in this Stereogum-Interview) the force of nature and Case herself is shown with a halo of burning (fake movie) cigarettes on her album cover because she fell in love with them.
One of the greatest talents of Neko Case is her sense for change: when does a song need this one backup vocal that pierces your heart, or that one radio-voice that will break up a solemn song like “Gumball Blue” and remind you of your teenage years in the 90s? That she also defines relationships outside of the romantic realm – something that still gets not enough space in modern songwriting – is another beauty. “Gumball Blue” was co-written by A.C. Newman, by the way, Case brought him into the songwriting because the song is essentially about him and she wanted him to be part of it.
Another thing and story that might have framed the album is the history of the abuse of women. Neko Case dealt with a stalker and had to go through all the tedious and stressful procedures women have to endure before someone takes them seriously and she wondered when this started. “My Uncle’s Navy” is one of these songs and reminds a little of “Deep Red Bells” given that it deals with horrible men and how they affect not only women but society as a whole with their abuse.
“And if you’re tenderhearted you should stop the tape, snap the tape”, Case sings before she tells what he did (now, whether it’s autobiographical or not doesn’t really matter, as probably most listeners know people like this, sadly).
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Case says that Adrienne Mayor’s book “Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World” helped her a lot to understand how women’s history is buried but it can be found and it is being found by younger generations. And right in there fits “Winnie” (with additional vocals by Beth Ditto) because it reminds me of the great girl groups of the 60s. The song itself is a story about female empowerment through female friendship which can be overwhelmingly beautiful.
The last track on the album, “Pitch or Honey” is a grand last song because it’s like Case’s journey towards this album as it’s pretty meta lyrically, announcing “I use major chords to make this a sadder song”. And finishes with “I love you better when you’re wild” and I guess that’s why Neko Case is such a force in songwriting: she’s not afraid to get dark and aggressive and sinister and sarcastic but she always adds her humanity into it.