Perfect Sound Forever


by Jeffrey Metzger
(October 2015)

After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth—the strange commingling of desire and hate. —Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

On the back of Furnace Room Lullaby is a picture of Neko Case. She is crouched over a fallen man, rifling through his wallet, looking up at the camera. She looks as if she has just been discovered, and while her face lacks any wild look of surprise or fear, she seems to be communicating something to the viewer, meeting their gaze with her own understanding of the situation. Her face shows a mixture of feral shame and self-disgust -- or a knowing, stoic defiance. Her expression is inscrutable, her features partially obscured by the light pouring in through a window behind her, or perhaps just a perfect balance of desire and hate.

But this is obviously the wrong place to begin. There are so many other avenues by which to approach her work: her relation to the murder ballad tradition, her "country noir" sensibilities in her earlier work, her movement away from this sensibility, towards what is often taken to be more unique or personal work, beginning with Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. Finally, there is of course the time she attained some measure of internet fame by advising the motherfuckers at Playboy not to Peggy Olsen her. But here I just want to focus on the country noir work, the albums Furnace Room Lullaby and Blacklisted, which I think are as powerful and distinctive as anything she's done.

Furnace Room Lullaby begins with Case setting off across the continent, trying to outrun heartbreak. The landscape she describes is concrete, recognizable as an America of windy prairies and a Big Muddy lined with smokestacks, terminating when "the cloudy blue Pacific took the air in my lungs." But the feeling she's trying to escape can't be fixed or outpaced: "I just can't shake this feeling that I'm nothing in your eyes." The same feeling persists for most of the album, sometimes punctuated by something like happiness ("No Need To Cry"), sometimes intensified ("Twist the Knife," the first of Case's powerhouse vocal performances on the album). Finally, on "South Tacoma Way," she finds deep attachment to another person. The song has the same sweeping expansiveness as the opening track, though now it is more slow and measured. Case's voice, with superb backing vocals by Kelly Hogan, is thick and deep, full of mournful disbelief. Finally, at the end of the song, it rises up like a great storm cloud hanging over the city streets she is describing, filtering all the light in the sky through itself.

It's the twilight of our old home
And I'm still in love with you
For most of the album, Case is homeless but resilient, practicing a kind of emotional guerrillismo. "Furnace Room Lullaby," however, strips all of that away, presenting a song about obsession and suffocation and possession. The music again hearkens back to the sense of movement on the opening track, but now it is focused rather than expansive, relentless, unforgiving- the song is dark and driven, but too inevitable for menace. The vocal, even to one as logorrheic as myself, is beyond words.

Blacklisted continues in this vein and somehow mines it even more deeply. "Things That Scare Me" sets the tone immediately. The playing is both sweeping and precise, Case's voice high and clear. The lyrics, while clearly staking the song to feelings of dread, are also ambiguous. What exactly is Case afraid of? The narrator, or the things against which the narrator contends? "Claim your soul is not for sale": is this a derisive challenge or a personal imperative? By the time we get to the end of the song--"I'm a dying breed, still believe/Hunted by American dreams"--the lines resonate as much more than Case's personal nightmare.

Violence erupts on many of the songs on Blacklisted, and it is rendered by Case not as something lurid or even especially terrifying, but as a simple but stark fact of life. "Deep Red Bells," probably the peak of the album, is the story of forgotten murders and murder victims. Like Elvis's "Long Black Limousine," another song that always produces a physiological reaction in me, "Deep Red Bells" used bold colors to represent death. "Long Black Limousine" is classic in many ways. Lyrically, it is a beautifully executed morality tale, highlighting the irony of human ambition ("Now everybody's watching you, you finally had your dream") and its attendant blindness ("The race upon the highway, the curve you didn't see"). Death is doubly embodied, first as the sleek limousine, then as the equally mute driver ("A chauffeur, a chauffeur at the wheel dressed up so fine"). The lyrics, the backup singers, the horns all combine to envelop Elvis in a long and deep tradition. As the music rises to its climax, the lyrics shift from the specter of death to the far more terrible act of mourning ("I'll never love another, all my hopes, all my dreams/Are with you in that long, black limousine").

"Deep Red Bells" is, among other things, a murder ballad, but its relation to this tradition is largely unhinged. Case's voice is the only one we hear, and while it carries the song to almost impossible heights, it is not the voice of a typical murder ballad. She speaks as neither murderer nor victim but as a seemingly detached observer. Death appears in the song, as it does in "Long Black Limousine," but it is not personified as anything immediate or visible. The red bells, the mystery and allure of the unknown that draw the listener on at the beginning of the song ("The red bells beckon you to ride"), are ultimately the mystery and terror of death itself. Death emerges, or rather strikes, as something distant and unseen, "while the red bells rang like thunder." There is no one there watching or making sense of death, just an awareness of the pain and absence it leaves behind ("Who's left to suffer long about you?").

The song begins with a sense of urgency, pressing close to the listener with anxious guitar chords before falling back and opening out into its territory, the sonic expanses of the music matching the emptiness of the landscape being described. Case's voice, by contrast, is soft and sympathetic from the first. The lyrics evince the familiar sense of inevitability ("It always has to come to this"), but here the listener is drawn on to the inevitable rather than being encircled and captured by it ("the red bells beckon you to ride"). On the bridge, the song stretches out further, with suitably desolate and ominous guitar figures, before raveling into silence. Then Case's voice returns:

Where does this mean world cast its cold eye?
Who's left to suffer long about you?
Murder ballads typically focus on the psychology of the murderer, the panic of the victim, the horror of the act. Here Case's gaze is sympathetic but focuses instead on those left to mourn the victim. The murder seems neither fearful nor piteous, but rather stupid, brutal, and cruel, and we are deprived of the (fearful, moral, voyeuristic) thrill of the typical murder ballad.

Then the music begins to stir. "Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag?" It sounds almost like a taunt, and the sympathy of the previous lines seems to disappear into something icy as Case's voice becomes hard and strained. The guitar is strumming and jangling as Case hangs onto the last word, then she continues: "Past empty lots and early graves." Now the music returns and kicks up like the wind, the guitars falling in behind Case as she sings over the rush and force of the sound:

Those like you who lost their way, murdered on the interstate
While the red bells rang like thunder
Her voice is high and clear again, but then she plunges into the refrain and it becomes deep and full, overrich with knowledge and urgency. "Deep as I have been done," she sings, and between this and energy of the music we feel the inevitability of our own deaths, the certainty that death is sewn into life itself just as it's written into the energy and life of the music playing behind Case. We end up not with the usual thrill of the murder ballad but the terrible thrill of seeing, of feeling the necessity of our death, even as we're confronted with all the forgotten and suppressed murders on a giant, empty continent choked with the blood of genocide. The almost-frantic playing at the beginning of the song returns at the end, now overlaid with everything that has come before it, and it feels like a tide drawing back out to sea, taking and hiding something with it.

"Outro With Bees" comes down from the almost unbearable intensity and grandeur of "Deep Red Bells," but the calmer, quieter music, uncertain and faltering, perfectly complements the poignant lyrics, summed up in the heartbreaking line, "There's no love I believe." From here, the sense of isolation only intensifies. "Lady Pilot" is more upbeat musically, but Case's vocal delivery has a kind of desperate abandon, and the song is about a pilot who is not afraid to die but who still can't look down, perhaps because of the darkness yawning beneath her, perhaps because of the stories of people trapped alive. "Tightly" is also somewhat deceptive, with its wide-open, sauntering guitar, but it is ultimately a warning (or a simple threat) not to try to interfere with one who clings tightly to a life marked by coveting, theft, and obscure movements in the night. "Pretty Girls," walks a fine line between encouragement and despair, and gives us the splendid line "Those who walk without sin are so hungry." There are some moments of reprieve ("Stinging Velvet" and "Missed the Point"), and some amazing performances on "I'll Be Around," where Case sounds so world-weary it might be Jesus or Buddha singing, and "Running Out of Fools." These would be highlights on another album, but here feel almost like counterpoint to the darker and more personal songs.

As the album continues, it slows down and stretches out, with "I Wish I Was The Moon" standing out for its sense of exhaustion and dissociation. The pacing, delivery, and especially the lyrics--"God bless me, I'm a free man, with nowhere free to go/Paralyzed and collared tight, no pills for what I fear"--are magnificent (indeed, they could be the peak of the album, had I not already identified at least two others). Having steadily plotted its path through 13 intense, tightly focused songs, Blacklisted disintegrates on the hidden track at the very end. After a minute or so of dead air, we start to hear someone turning through various radio stations. A man and a woman are fighting on one channel, there is music on another, but we don't catch much. Then comes the reprise of "Outro With Bees," distorted and disjointed but still affecting. When it ends, we begin to move back through the radio stations, mostly country and Latin music. The music is classic or corny, depending on your tastes, but it is all completely free of self-consciousness, which makes it charming and even something of a relief. We come back to the man and the woman arguing, and he tells her, "I hope the devil gets you." The woman stops, apparently shocked, and he repeats himself, raising his voice slightly and speaking slowly and sententiously, the way you do to establish authority with children. She laughs, but it is the kind of exasperated laugh that you give off when you know you are alone and won't be believed. It is ridiculous, or terrifying, or dismal, again depending on how you hear it. Then they disappear again, and the last voice we hear is a man briefly speaking what sounds like Spanish. He sounds excited, his pronunciation precise and emphatic. Even if you recognize the language, you can't hear enough to make sense of what he's saying. After that, more static, and then we pass from uncomprehended noise to silence.

Also see our interview with Neko Case

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