in Retrospecticus

Neko Case is un-fucking-stoppable. In fact, I’m not sure there’s any person in the past 20 years who’s been involved with as much great music as Neko Case. Not only has she had one of the most fruitful, consistently rewarding discographies of any singer-songwriter in recent memory. But in addition, she has been an integral part of Canadian power-pop supergroup, The New Pornographers, who’ve been just as consistent as Case has been in her solo work. Then on top of that, you have projects like 2016’s excellent Case/Lang/Veirs collaboration, as well as the fact that she’s appeared on underrated Northwest classics like Cub’s Betti-Cola or Visqueen’s Message To Garcia.

So needless to say, looking at Case’s discography is not going to be filled with the kinds of weird peaks and valleys that one looks for in a retrospecticus. As I’ve said, she’s been very consistent, an attribute not typically valued in rock and roll, but one that makes sense for an artist that really didn’t come into her own until she was in her thirties. That said, I think despite the fact that most of these albums will hover around 4-stars ratings-wise, each album provides something new about Case’s personality and her music that revels in its bittersweetness. Which I can only assume will continue on her latest album Hell-On, which comes out this week.

The Virginian (1997)

I think one easy way to look at Neko Case is as a kind of troubadour. As much as I’d like to claim Case (who grew up in Tacoma) as a fellow Washingtonian, I wouldn’t say she’s someone that belongs to any one place or time. Take for instance the title of The Virginian, which hints at Case’s early childhood in Virginia, as well as the fact that it was recorded while Case was an art school student in Vancouver B.C. While accordingly, much of the preceding albums in Case’s career seem to be influenced by where she was geographically at the time.

This debut seems to embrace Case’s childhood proximity to the south, with its overt country twang, which I’m sure seemed a bit unusual considering Case coming up in the post-grunge/riot grrrl world of late ’90s punk/alt-rock. And this album is more country than any of her subsequent albums, which considering I’ve always been a casual country fan, I have no problem with. But at the same time, you can tell Case is just starting to toy with how to mix her indie background with classic country songwriting. Much of which is fun and light, but doesn’t quite have the gravity of her releases to come.

Furnace Room Lullaby (2000)

From the album’s open crack of Neko Case’s voice bellowing into the wide open, you can tell she isn’t fucking around on Furnace Room Lullaby. After Case’s Canadian visa expired (though not before she recorded vocals for The New Pornographers seminal debut) in 1998, she moved to Seattle. Though in true Neko Case fashion, her sophomore album was recorded a bit all over the place in Vancouver, Chicago, and Toronto. Meanwhile, the so-called “Boyfriends” consist of her backing band at the time as well as frequent collaborators like The New Porno’s Carl Newman and singer Kelly Hogan.

I may be a bit biased towards loving this album more than any other one of Case’s albums, because I’m just amazed that she managed to so brilliantly pull off a Northwest country album. Obviously, Washington state is about as far in the continental U.S. as you could get from the South, which is what naturally comes to mind when you think of the kind of down-home singer/songwriter fare that influenced this music. But at the same time, you can feel the whispering pines and moist atmosphere of the region in between Case’s mountainous vocals.

Also, it digs into the fact that despite the Northwest being thought of as this tech/hipster hub, during the ’80s and ’90s during Case’s come-of-age, it was a pretty backwoods, working-class part of the country. This is exemplified by the album’s two odes to her hometown of Tacoma – “Thrice All American” and “South Tacoma Way”, which are among the best songs on the album and in Case’s career. Again, I have a hard time strictly thinking of Case as a “Seattle artist”, but for at least this one album, she got the region, and an unheard of type of songwriting better than you could have ever hoped for.

Blacklisted (2002)

After perfecting the rain-drenched PNW country of Furnace Room Lullaby, it seems as if Neko needed to dry things out a bit by recording her next album in Tucson, Arizona. There’s a rusty sparseness to this album, that has an almost pinkish glow to it, like a southwestern evening. I wouldn’t say it strays too far from the aforementioned prior release, but I would say it’s maybe the least accessible of Neko Case’s albums, though I’d still stay it’s one of her strongest.

I think that inaccessibility is what has kept this from being a Case album that I return to a lot. I believe it was the first Neko Case solo album I attempted to listen to, due to it making an appearance on Pitchfork’s Top 200 albums of the ’00s. And maybe the fact that it’s not quite as breezy as Neko Case’s other albums is what makes it a critical favorite. That said, this album has a bunch of stand-out tunes, among them “I Wish I Was The Moon”, one of the purest of Neko Case’s ballads. Also, it probably should’ve been mentioned by now, but Case truly has one of the most captivating voices around, and it sounds particularly great coupled with Blacklisted‘s reverb-drenched production.

The Tigers Have Spoken (2004)

I wasn’t sure whether to include this live album or not, but since it seems to be a fan favorite among Nekoheads, I’ll include it. Also, it was really the only new (to me) album I listened to in preparation for writing this whole thing.

Anyways, this is a really great live album, which is a fantastic showcase for Case’s mesmerizing vocals, while also displaying the integral vocal harmonies between Neko and her career-long sidekick Kelly Hogan. Also, apart from “Blacklisted”, it’s mostly covers or songs that don’t appear on any of the studio albums. And considering the covers (like Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X” or The Shangri-La’s “Train From Kansas City”) are positively rippin’, it’s another unsurprisingly worthy entry in the Neko Case catalog.

Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2006)

It’s hard to believe Fox Confessor Brings The Flood was only the 4th studio album in Neko Case’s solo career, because she sounds like she’d lived a lifetime by the time of this album’s release. Again, she had been kicking around all sorts of different musical projects by now, so maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she exudes the confidence of a lifer here. But at the same time, the album’s assuredness is helped by production that’s sometimes gentle and inviting, and sometimes a bit haunting, but never over-polished.

After Furnace Room Lullaby, it’s hard to say what my 2nd favorite Neko Case album is, considering so many of them are so darn solid. But while this one maybe doesn’t have as many stand-out stunning tracks as the two albums that would follow it, it’s hard to match the vibe of this album. And it’s a vibe that I think Neko Case would carry on into the more recent stage of her career, where there’s the bittersweetness of experience hanging over everything.

I’d say Neko’s songwriting here feels a little less personal, being marked by character-driven narratives like “Margaret vs. Pauline” or the biblical imagery of “John Saw That Number”. But more than anything, it establishes her as songwriter built to last into the middle-age that usually breaks most rockers. And not only surviving the musician’s life, but making that survival into an art form.

Middle Cyclone (2009)

Middle Cyclone feels like the closest Neko Case ever got to making a pop album. Well, other than her work in The New Pornographers, which is some of the most sublimely poppy stuff around. From the opening track “This Tornado Loves You”, you know you’re in for something pleasantly catchy, but also dripping with that world-weary bittersweetness that Neko does so well. Also, yes, I do realize how much I’ve used the word “bittersweet” over the course of this Retrospecticus. But I bet if I looked at past Retrospecticuses, there’s probably one word that keeps cropping up while describing every artist’s discography, and well, that’s the one I can’t help but pin on Neko Case. Sorry.

It’s hard to know the exact details of where Neko Case was geographically at this point. But I believe this was in the middle of her Chicago period, which may or may not have to do with this and Fox Confessor having a slight Wilco vibe. But if there is a difference between Middle Cyclone and its predecessor, it’s that Neko seems to be grappling a bit more with personal stuff and in particular relationships on this album. This is exemplified in stand-outs like “People Got A Lotta Nerve” or “I’m an Animal”, the latter of which might feature my favorite Neko Case lyric – “and heaven will smell like the airport”.

The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (2013)

I think it would’ve been easy to write off The Worse Things Get… as just another really solid Neko Case album. And there is that bedrock of reliably hooky songs coupled with great lyrics, as well as the reliable stable of collaborators that’ve made past appearances on Case solo albums. But at the same time, there’s a restlessness at the heart of this album, that makes for perhaps Neko’s most emotionally raw work. Which may not come as a surprise considering its Fiona Apple-esque album title.

The most noticeable example of this rawness is “Man”, maybe the most rocking song of Case’s career, and musical proof that Neko Case is such a force of nature that she can’t be contained by the mere constraints of gender. Other stand-outs include the hauntingly empathetic “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”, while “I’m From Nowhere” very plainly details Neko Case’s vagabond nature, as well as her will to move forward in the face of blockades that one puts in front of themselves over the course of a life. This latest album is filled from head to toe with that wisdom. The kind of wisdom that makes me look forward to Neko Case’s latest album, and that I think years from now will cause people to hold her in esteem as one of the great singer-songwriters of her generation.