It sounds like metaphorical fodder for one her darker songs, yet Neko Case’s house really did burn down last fall after she’d written the songs for her tenth album, Hell-On (out June 1 on Anti-), while she was far away in Sweden recording the album’s finishing touches. Thankfully, the people and animals at Case’s home in Vermont were all right.
“I had to do the lead vocal for ‘Bad Luck’ the morning after the fire because that was slated,” Case tells Exclaim! at a hotel in downtown Toronto. “It was odd. I was kind in shock. It wasn’t a big deal; it just was surreal and weird.”
Then, she corrects herself.
“It is a big deal. But I didn’t let myself think it was a big deal cause everyone was okay. And at that time Puerto Rico was under water; Houston had just flooded and two weeks after that the fires were starting in California and I was there for that too. I was going through what everyone else was going through.”
Case describes the lead vocal for “Bad Luck” as really static. “I was talking to the mix engineer saying, ‘I don’t know if my vocals are good enough,’ and he said, ‘maybe that’s what somebody sounds like when their fucking house burns down.’ In the end it made a nice counterpoint to the super lively girl group backing vocals, so I think it’s okay now. At first I thought I sounded like a wooden weirdo.”
Of course, she doesn’t. Hell-On, with its songs about nature, environmental destruction, extinction, women, love and memory is perhaps Case’s poppiest, most eclectic album yet, picking up on some the musical and lyrical themes 2009’s Middle Cyclone. Many the choruses are New Pornographers-huge, but Case’s lyrics are as specific and intimate as ever. Hell-On shifts from gothic folk to indie pop to shimmery folk rock. It includes a Phil Spectre-ish earworm (“Bad Luck”), a poetic, epic piano ballad (“Curse the I-5 Corridor”) and a floaty dance song (“Gumball Blue”), and sports a subtly nautical second half.
In an unusual ceding power for Case, she allowed Peter Björn and John’s Björn Yttling, who co-produced half the songs on the record (including “Bad Luck”), to do what he wanted with the songs, which yielded unexpectedly fruitful results.
“Björn and I would have these eureka moments like ‘Yes, start with the chorus! Yes, that’s exiting! Let’s do that!'” Case says. When they first met to discuss working together (Case is a huge fan Camera Obscura’s My Maudlin Career, for which he did the string and horn arrangements), Case mentioned something about transitions and Yttling said, “It’s so silly that people worry so much about transitions because sometimes I just want the whole song to be the hook; I want the whole song to be the groove.”
“It’s such an obvious idea,” Case says. “I listen to the Sweet a lot, even still. The teenage rock’n’roll fan in me was like, ‘Thank you Björn for pointing out something I should have known. Of course I love that while I’m listening, so why wouldn’t I do that?”
Case co-wrote songs for Hell-On with her New Pornographers bandmate A.C. Newman as well as her longtime collaborator, Paul Rigby, who plays guitar on the album. The New Pornographers have been around for over 20 years, yet this was the first time that Newman and Case co-wrote together.
“It’s pretty hilarious that we’d never done it,” Case says. “He likes to work on music and lyrics kind start to drive him nuts; and I like to work on lyrics and music sometimes starts to drive me nuts. So it’s like ‘I got the chocolate, you got the peanut butter; should we try it?’ And we tried it and it was really fun.”
Yttling, Newman and Rigby were far from Case’s only collaborators on Hell-On, which at about three dozen people probably features more musical collaborators than any her previous records, including the one she released in 2016 as part case/lang/veirs (k.d. lang and Laura Veirs sing backup vocals on Hell-On, and Veirs helped write “Oracle the Maritimes,” which is in a key she invented).
Mark Lanegan sings with Case on the epic “Curse the I-5 Corridor”; the Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster joins Case’s backup vocal team Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor on “Bad Luck” and Eric Bachmann sings an unforgettable duet with Case on a cover his “Sleep All Summer,” a tail end the album highlight; and Beth Ditto appears on “Winnie,” a song Case calls “a tribute” to Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons: Lives and Legends Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, a book that inspired the album (but that song in particular). “Winnie” is also, Case says, “a tribute to how I feel about women in the world. It’s like this overwhelming love womankind.”
Speaking how women’s myriad roles were hidden from history, Case says, “luckily we’re still there and the graves were poorly dug.” Women were hidden from the history books because misogyny, patriarchy, jealousy, control and power. “But I don’t know that I know a woman who doesn’t look inside themselves, think about what our history says, which is, ‘women have this side kick role passengers, breeding vessels, slaves and children,’ and think,] ‘That’s not what we did. We were creators. Rulers. Inventors. Innovators. Assholes. Tyrants. We were everything.'”
Hell-On is out June 1 courtesy Anti- Records.