It’s been just under five years since Neko Case released her last solo album, the unwieldy titled but brilliant The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. Yet it feels like she’s never been away – as well as appearing on two albums with her band The New Pornographers since 2013, she was also partly responsible for one of the best records of recent times in her collaboration with kd lang and Laura Veirs.
There’s a collaborative feel to much of Hell-On as well – there are guest vocal spots from Veirs and lang, together with appearances from Robert Forster of The Go-Betweens, Beth Ditto, Mark Lanegan, and Archers Of Loaf‘s Eric Bachmann. Yet thanks to Case’s trademark experimentation and some unflinchingly honest lyrics, there’s never any doubt that this is a Neko Case album.
It’s an album that’s not been without its teething problems either – during recording, her house in Vermont, New England was gutted by fire, and she lost most of her possessions. Ironically enough, the track she’d been recording when she heard about the fire was Bad Luck, possibly the most poppy and accessible song on the album. There’s an almost ’60s girl-group atmosphere to it, as Case gleefully runs through a list of things that bring Bad Luck (“woke a dog from a running dream…. ate a black fly in the cream… Chipped my tooth on an engagement ring”). There’s a glorious rush to the chorus, which contrasts with the downbeat words of “are you tired of things going right…tired of trying to make everyone happy”.
Elsewhere, things are darker – My Uncle’s Navy is a horrifying song about her childhood predator (“an uncle, who was not by blood”) and those who enabled him (“I hated those who gave him access to our days, the ones who did nothin’… I still can’t love them”). Lighter musically, but no less weighty is Halls Of Sarah – it inevitably reminds one of Fleetwood Mac, with its repeated refrain of “Sarah…”, and the presence of Laura Veirs on backing vocals gives the song a beautifully ghostly presence.
Case also works well with two famously gravelly-voiced male singers on the record – Eric Bachman performs a beautiful duet of his own song Sleep All Summer, while Mark Lanegan shows up on the epic, slow burning ballad Curse Of The I-5 Corridor. The latter is one of the most extraordinary songs of the year, which sees Case look back on the “first drink of the night underaged, knowing that you’re gonna get away with it” before telling of faked IDs and how “I fucked every man I wanted to be”. It’s not so much a duet, with Lanegan primarily on backing vocals, but his presence gives the song an almost unbearable weight.
Pitch Or Honey is the perfect closer, starting off glitchy and electro before slowly transforming into a gloriously soaring song about writing a song – “I use major chords to make this the saddest song, an effective manipulation” runs one line. She’s being modest of course: Case is far more than an “effective manipulator”, she is in fact one of our most underrated songwriters. Hell-On is a good demonstration of just how great she’s become.