Neko Case: “Middle Cyclone”
Where else could one possibly begin a discussion of Neko Case’s sixth album, Middle Cyclone, but with the cover? Picturing the singer perched atop a vintage muscle car, hurtling forward with outstretched sword, it’s an eye-popping image if ever there was one, and, when it was unveiled some three months before the record released, it immediately made Case the pin-up girl of preference for alt-country and indie pop fans alike (if she wasn’t already). The meaning of the image was somewhat contestable– was Case mounting an attack on Mordor, re-enacting her favorite White Snake video, or simply giving hippie auto mechanics something to be happy about?– but its connotations were clear: This was an image that suggested boldness, abandon, aggression– three words that have never been very strongly associated with Case, an artist who seems to grow less confident and more cautious with every album she makes.
And indeed, listening to the music, one gets very little sense of the speed or daring that the cover image might suggest; on the album that could’ve and should’ve been her big breakthrough, Case still feels confined by her conservative, perfectionist tendencies, orchestrating and arranging everything so immaculately and precisely that there’s almost nothing in the way of spontaneity or adventure in these songs; the only moment on this polite album where Case summons the nerve to simply let the tape roll and see what happens is on the final track, a thirty-minute field recording of forest peeps. And in that sense, Middle Cyclone isn’t anything even close to resembling the butt-kicking joyride suggested by the cover shot, but, rather, a linear extension of the very-good but also much-too-tame album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.
Where Case does demonstrate some growth is in her decision to keep these songs a bit on the sparse side; unlike Fox Confessor, which sometimes felt claustrophobic thanks to its meticulous layers of acoustic and electric instruments, Cyclone is a significantly lighter, more spacious affair, arranged mostly for acoustic guitar and percussion, with tasteful flourishes of electric guitar and keyboard effects here and there. And if “tasteful” is very much the operating word here, Case at least has the good sense to keep things simple and organic, which means that, rather than feeling stifling or restrictive, the polite arrangements lend the album a straightforward beauty, at times even a warmth. And if that isn’t enough to counter the album’s tendency toward homogeneous tendencies and, as it winds down, a burgeoning sense of lethargy, it does make for some really terrific songs, in particular the gently propulsive opener, “This Tornado Loves You,” a surprisingly playful reading of The Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” and the gentle country lilt of the title song.
And if you sense a theme in those song titles, well, that’s the other new development in Nekoland: Apparently, she has decided to become indiedom’s resident naturalist, with this album drawing its imagery, its themes, even its tone from the natural world. Case interprets magpie songs, declares that she herself is an animal, waxes philosophical about killer whales, and stalks a tornado through its path of wreckage– all of which, of course, as a means of getting at what it is to be human, the power and beauty of the natural world serving as a conceit for the frailty of humanity and the furious power of love and desire. Like Andrew Bird on his Noble Beast, Case seeks to capture what it is to be human, but where Bird seems keen on finding that which distinguishes us from the animals, Case tends to view us as simply, well, noble beasts.
And if the violence and savagery of her writing shows just how good of a writer she has become– gone are the somewhat clunky metaphors that occasionally made their way onto Fox Confessor— they also make it all the more evident what’s missing from the music, which is always pretty, never surprising, and every now and then a bit tedious. One senses that there’s a beast lurking within Case, just waiting to escape from the confines of her mannerly alt-country arrangements and unleash something akin to the power and booming force of her voice– which, by the way, still sets the spine to tingling even after all this time. But until that time comes, an album like Middle Cyclone, while domesticated, is nevertheless lovely and at times quite alluring– perhaps her most sophisticated work, if not her most satisfying.