IT’S THAT time again. Almost three years to the day since the release of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Neko Case returns. Still sans the “and Her Boyfriends” tag that differentiated her first solo albums from her other side projects (The Sadies and The New Pornographers), Middle Cyclone puts Case’s work in a frustrating context. Its feels like typical Neko, but it only occasionally rewards the listener with extraordinariness that has driven her finest efforts.
Earlier records, The Virginian, Blacklisted and Furnace Room Lullaby, started with a country-&-western foundation and would work themselves into the occasional R&B riff (see: “Runnin’ Out of Fools”). Amid that run of initial solo output, Neko recorded her best song, the bruising, cryptically sadomasochistic murder ballad “Furnace Room Lullaby.” But as she continued her solo work she altered her approach and started experimenting with instrumentation (working that hammered dulcimer) and song-length (from her standard sub-three-minute beauties “That Teenage Feeling” and “Margaret vs. Pauline” to her grandiose “Star Witness”). It was there that she produced her best record to date, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.
And then there’s one more thing you’ve got to know about Neko’s last few albums: animals. Since 2004, listening to Neko’s songwriting has been like visiting the fucking zoo. And though she pulled off some interesting aural-animalia in Fox Confessor (the titular fox and “Maybe Sparrow”), she peaked early with this trope: back on the title track of 2004’s The Tigers Have Spoken.
The simplicity of the theme was staggering and heartbreaking. In her story a displaced, awkward tiger wills himself insane in order gain his freedom through death: “Separate from the other tigers/He did not know another tiger/They shot the tiger on his chain/In a field behind the cages/He walked in circles ’til he was crazy/And he lived that way forever/And he lived that way forever/Just as long as he could remember/If he’d wanted to remember.”
Middle Cyclone places her firmly on the Fox side of her instrumentation and style … and animals. There are lots and lots of animals here. But the familiarity combined with a weak first act dulls the buzz one gets from the successful cuts on the record’s second half (though calling it that obviously excepts the obnoxious half-hour of cricket chirping that serves as the “epilogue”).
What immediately degrades Middle Cyclone is a failed gimmick-as-song, “This Tornado Loves You,” a story of an inter-element fling between a system of flesh and weather system, wherein the storm itself howls declarations of affection to its lover. What could compellingly transfer the internal give-and-take of desire to the image of a devastating tornado, turns out to be an unnatural disaster. As she explained to NPR, “the song is very literal.” Not to be too snarky here, but desire and the libido are already forces of nature. So for a natural phenomenon (a tornado) to be driven by a force of nature (desire) really is no different than writing about another natural phenomenon (the human being) driven by a force of nature (desire). So that leaves us with the issue of whether weather chasing tail is a successful concept for a song. Nope.
Maybe I missed the subliminal whimsy encoded her delivery, or maybe my sensitivity to magical realism has atrophied, but the ludicrousness of that opening track set the tone for two more songs with fatal flaws. Song two, “The Next Time You Say Forever,” stumbles, a victim of a strained meter and awkward phrasing. And on song three, “People Got a Lotta Nerve,” two unwieldy mammals (an elephant and … a killer whale?) are matched with an awkward and disappointingly obvious chorus: “I’m a man-man-man/-man-man-maneater/But you’re still surprised when I eat you.” Okay, so maybe that’s supposed to be an ambiguous statement, but if it’s supposed to function as both a threat and erotic allusion and all the heat you’re throwing is a tautological restatement and description of a bad day at SeaWorld, then I’m going to say that Nelly Furtado covered “maneater” quite well, thank you.
What hobbles this opening act of Middle Cyclone is how it seems Neko’s stunning voice wails this stuff with complete solemnity. I mean if I’m going to subject myself to absurd lyrics and/or concepts, please allow me some ironic distance so I can still maintain my dignity. After the meandering “Vengeance is Sleeping” and an unsuccessful cover of Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” (though, to be honest, I’m not a big fan of the synthy-glamish original), Middle Cyclone finally impresses with the title track, an intimate and whispery lamentation.
Songbirds and vultures decorate the delicate waltz “Magpie to the Morning” and Neko goes generic with the anathematic “I’m an Animal.” But both work. And the latter song’s swagger and jangle are so overwhelming that one almost forgives and forgets the atrocious category mistake of “This Tornado Loves You.” Here Animal = Lust, and it’s glorious: “Heaven will smell like the airport/But I may never get there to prove it/So let’s not waste our time thinking how that ain’t fair/I’m an animal/You’re an animal, too.”
From hereon in Neko ditches the beast-jams and goes back to basics. “Prison Girls” is five-minutes of twanged and reverby guitars swirling around a melodramatic chorus “I love your long shadows and gunpowder eyes.” But the star of Middle Cylcone’s cycle of songs is “The Pharaohs.” The devastating opening verse establishes the song’s narrative of disenchantment (“We were married in the mirrored hall when I was 16/You spoke the words I love girls in white leather jackets/That was good enough for love/That was good enough for me”) and the heroine’s sorrow and disappointment culminates with resignation at the limits of her arrangement: “I want the pharaohs, but there’s only men.”
Ultimately Middle Cyclone disappoints with its unevenness. But as “The Pharaohs” attests: her post-Fox instrumentation serves her well (but, yes, I am a sucker for a hammered dulcimer) when she still chooses to plumb the phantasmagorical depths of her furnace room lullabies. As for the rest of it, she needs to send the pets to a kennel, and, for the love of god, kill the crickets.
Steven Rybicki is a Patrol contributing editor.
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