She's back! After three years, Neko Case has reemerged to seduce listeners once more with those big lungs of hers. If the cover art for Middle Cyclone is any indication (she is pictured perched on the hood of a car with a rapier at the ready), she has returned with a vengeance.
With this album, her sixth solo effort, Case decided to go back to nature for inspiration, which she found on her 100-acre farm in rural Vermont. She filled her drafty 200-year-old barn with eight found pianos salvaged from craigslist to create an orchestra that appears on several tracks such as "This Tornado Loves You," the spooky "Polar Nettles," and "Don't Forget Me." The latter is a lovely cover of a Harry Nilsson tune and another track, "Don't Turn Your Back on Mother Earth," is a goofy take on a Sparks' song. The remaining twelve tracks are positively Neko, all self written and infused with her enigmatic poetics and bittersweet smoky twang that echoes Patsy Cline.
Not one to test the waters with a tentative toe, Case dives right in with the album's first song, "This Tornado Loves You," an up-tempo, thumping ode to a misplaced love interest. In the song's first line, she declares, "I am the speed of sound" and later likens her patience to a glacier's and her courage to the roar of the sun. It's clear that, when engaged in the game of love, she ceases being just a woman and spins into a force of nature to be reckoned with. She sings over insistent guitars of the destruction precipitated by her desire and the havoc left in her wake (a trail of smashed transformers, broken necks in ditches, and the "motherless, fatherless") as she searches for the one that got away or never was.
This isn't the first time Case has alluded to her more perilous attributes. In 2006's Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, she sings, "My own blood is much too dangerous," as if warning suitors that loving her could prove fatal. This advisory carries over to "The Next Time You Say Forever," a quiet yet bold song in which she cautions: "The next time you say forever/ I will punch you in your face." And in the cute and catchy first single, "People Got a Lot of Nerve," she sings to the men who didn't heed her warnings: "I'm a man eater, but you're still surprised when I eat you." Case has said that, for this song, she was inspired by zoo attacks and how the mauled are somehow shocked that caged animals remain wild. The song serves as a reminder to those who have forgotten that nature and instinct cannot be domesticated or tamed, and neither can she.
Case's obsession with the animal kingdom, beautifully expressed on previous projects, also has a place on Middle Cyclone. She sings of owls on sills, elephants who don't forget, and killer whales. And, on "I'm an Animal," she joins the ranks of these beasts, proclaiming: "I'm an animal and you're an animal, too." In saying so, she becomes the subject and makes way for an invasion of a much more interior, personal territory than on previous albums.
Years ago, Case said that she was adamantly against writing love songs, yet here she is, doing just that and doing it spectacularly. Unsurprisingly, Case's love songs aren't the common sap fests infecting radio waves these days, but strange translations of the nature of love as she perceives it. For her, desire is a precarious experience, tinged with violence and something sugary, yet sinister. "I lie 'cross the path waiting/ Just for a chance to be/ A spider web trapped in your lashes," she swoons on one song; "I love your long shadows and your gun-powder eyes" on another.
Middle Cyclone is a brave expression of the blend of fear and pleasure that comes with exposing yourself to the possibility of loving another. And this collection of musical confessions reveals the extent of Case's vulnerability, despite the inherent bad-ass nature of her album cover persona. On the melancholic title track, she acknowledges that, like everyone else, she just wants to love and be loved. "I can't give up actin' 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." These revelations are somewhat painful to listen to because they evoke one's own losses and victories with desire.
Unfortunately, some of the musical arrangements aren't as haunting and alluring as Case's subject matter. The album suffers from a dispassionate slump toward the end with songs that don't do enough to distinguish themselves from one another and end up bleeding together. Nothing there sparks like the infectious first pack of tracks. But, let it be said, that an average, dry ballad sung by Neko Case is already leagues ahead of those sung by her peers.
The album ends with "Marais La Nuit," a 30-minute looped recording of ambient noise (crickets, frogs, and other forest dwellers) recorded outside Case's barn. It is the closing note to the date you didn't want to end, a moment to reflect on that extraordinary set of pipes and the twister that just tore a hole through the middle of your house.