Though it’s been some time since her last solo album, Neko Case has been surprisingly busy with duties in The New Pornographers and case/lang/veirs in recent years. All this varied writing floods back into her latest solo release but seems to have her stuck between two worlds. Though this can often make Hell-On feel a bit fragmented in parts, her lyricism is more on-point than ever and stands tall as the album’s driving force.
After her time away from her own work, it’s absolutely haunting to hear Case take such a dark turn on songs like “Hell-On.” Like a folk ballad, Case tells a menacing story of a woman tormented by those around her. This said she taps into her usual mix of acoustic instrumentation and richly layered productions on “Last Lion Of Albion” where a wave of electronics slowly infects the track. As usual however it’s Case’s own rich morose lyricism and visual poetry that gives the song a little more life.
There’s such a sparse feeling to the country hooks of “Halls Of Sarah” where Case seems to be mourning someone. Though it take quite some time to hit its stride, the sense of place Case makes around the track beforehand really gives it a warm energy. “Bad Luck” beats out with this vintage pop energy that’s borderline cheesy at times. Something about the filtered production of the truck and its inherently over-the-top pop will mean you’ll either really love this track or find it too much.
“Curse Of The I-5 Corridor” burns with Case’s usual smoky and brutally honest storytelling, elevated by the brooding harmonies in the song. As the beat kicks in, there’s something just as melancholy and pained behind the music as the album takes on a more lush production across the track’s epic length. While it seems like “Gumball Blue” pulls away from this, Case takes a dive through synth electronics without completely abandoning her core voice here. This said, the real issue is how stagnant the song remains before it hits some pointed bridges to shake things up.
There’s a lovely callback to the sombre alt-country of Middle Cyclone on “Dirty Diamond” while Case has clearly shifted her writing into more fiery and in-your-face performances. In all of this you can also hear the sense of attack she’s gained over the past few years, as once triumphant final yells have moved all the way to questioning others. She dives into the rustic tones even deeper on “Oracle Of The Maritimes” while she somehow twists it into a meditative charge of guitar. Like much of the album though it’s Case’s newfound fierce lyricism that tackles changes of heart and intimate conflicts that give the music a sense of scale.
Case’s updated sensibilities are also quite apparent on “Winnie” where her usually slow jaunts from previous albums now sees things quite differently. With all the explosive energy of the finale it’s a shame how redundant the earlier parts of the song are in reference to her breadth of work. The harmonious beauty is an interesting new foray for Case on songs like “Sleep All Summer” and while it does feel a little out of her more sharp-witted ballpark, it isn’t without some great memorable hooks.
A vintage pop rush hits hard on “My Uncle’s Navy” where Case shifts energy for a song that takes on more ambient energy than she usually allows. As she dives further into the world of synths and strings, the track feels like a clever push and pull with modern production styles. That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear Case really going out of her comfort zone with a track like “Pitch or Honey” while also reflecting on the process of writing music itself. This boundary pushing writing finds Case really taking advantage of her creativity to make music that is gripping on every level.
Words by Owen Maxwell