Published May 29, 2018Neko Case was in Sweden, putting the finishing touches on her glistening, anthemic tenth album with co-producer Björn Yttling (of Peter Björn and John) when she found out her home in Vermont had burned down after a fire started in her old barn. Luckily the people and animals in her life were all right.
In retrospect, the fire reinforced a theme that was already running through Hell-On: namely, the immense power of nature and our role within it, not outside of it. "God is not a contract / or a guy," Case sings over spooky kalimba on opener "Hell-On." "God is an unspecified tied / You cannot time its tables / It sets no glass or gables / God is / a lusty tire fire."
Over 12 of the poppiest songs Case has ever produced, with huge, New Pornographers-inspired choruses and literally dozens of guest musicians, including Beth Ditto, recent Case collaborators k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, A.C. Newman, Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan and The Go-Between's Robert Forster, Case sings about extinction ("Last Lion of Albion"), misplaced muses ("Halls of Sarah"), chance ("Bad Luck"), memory ("Curse of the I-5 Corridor") and love ("Oracle of the Maritimes").
Hell-On is incredibly dense and eclectic; each moment sonically plays up Case's lyrics and her inimitable delivery — which can turn from tough to vulnerable, to casually wry and to siren-esque within a few lines. It's chock full of delicious attention to detail, with flourishes like baritone sax, cello, bass and percussion at the right moments. On "Gumball Blue," Case's voice is surrounded by wafts of synths and you can practically smell the smoke machine as she sings, "Sometimes where there's smoke / It's just a smoke machine, honey."
The backup vocals similarly morph with the material: they sound like a scream on "Hell-On," echoes on "Halls of Sarah," and gang vocals on "Bad Luck," and they moan in pain with the narrator on "My Uncle's Navy," a song about child abuse and other adults that let it happen.
Then there are duets — this is a sneakily duet-heavy album — with Lanegan on "Curse of the I-5 Corridor," an epic reflection on more innocent times when the narrator walked by tavern doors and didn't know how the sounds were made (perhaps that's why Case declares, as the vet that she is: "instrumental over the bridge," when the time comes). And with Eric Bachmann on a brilliant cover of his Crooked Fingers song "Sleep All Summer," a classic and bittersweet highlight that's sort of an excursion. And Ditto takes over lead to sing from the perspective of warriors and women pirates on "Winnie," Case's tribute to women inspired by Adrienne Mayor's book, The Amazons.
Case returns to themes of humanity and wilderness on the final song, "Pitch or Honey," reminding listeners that we don't have control. In a refrain that reaches back to the sound of 2006's Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (or even before) Case repeats, "Hey, I love you better when you're wild / It suits you better if I say so." Case's music has gone through the gloss machine for Hell-On but shall remain untamed. (Anti)