Coiled on the bonnet of a vintage car and clutching a sword, the cover of Middle Cyclone pitches Neko Case in strident mood. And from the opening evocation of Case as a twister searching for an absentee lover on This Tornado Loves You, the album lives up to the billing.
Previous albums have more often than not seen Case pitched somewhere between Nick Cave and Loretta Lynn, with a knack for twilight ballads and barnstorming country tunes that belie tales of murderous exes, jilted lovers, serial killers and Grimm’s fairy stories.
Middle Cyclone continues this theme; but, more than ever before, pop songs such as I’m An Animal bring to mind her contribution to Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers. With the refrain “I’m a maneater, still your surprised when I eat ya”, People Gotta Lotta Nerve begs to be covered by some glistening pop strumpet, if only to see what Nelly Furtado or Katy Perry would make of the analogy likening a sexually voracious woman to a killer whale.
Recorded partly in a barn filled with abandoned pianos at Case’s Vermont farm, a sense of isolation runs through the album, and a bucolic tone is added by the backing of birdsong and chirruping frogs caught accidentally on tape (and by the 30 minute frog and cicada chorus at the end of the album). Not that the solitary sounds of rural life lead to necessarily gentle songs: many of the songs are as big and scary and terrifying as nature as they collide with Case’s observations on relationships. One exception is the title track, which is the sweetest ode on love you’ll hear this decade.
For all the rafts of pianos, backing from the likes of Calexico and The New Pornographers, and support of the cast of nature, the star of the show, closely pipping the observant and witty songwriting to the title, is Case’s vocal. It’s by turns as savage and brutal as a twister, and as delicate as a moth caught in the naked glow of a swinging porch light.
Few of these songs last more than three minutes, but such is Case’s skill with words and her expressiveness of voice that canyons of emotion and epic narrative are crammed into single lines such as “the next time you say forever, I will punch you in the face”. After two and three-quarter minutes, Magpie To The Morning, in which Case shows Patsy Cline how it should have been done, is indelibly stamped on the mind like the aftermath of some beautiful stroke.
If not every song is as immediately catchy as the others, the slow-burning claustrophobia of Prison Girls and the dispassionate, languid, longing she instils in Harry Nilsson‘s Don’t Forget Me seep uneasily into the consciousness. Pharaohs and Vengeance Is Sleeping are classic country ballads: sweeping and downcast on the surface but instilled with wrongdoing and retribution.
In short, Middle Cyclone is the sound of one of the most interesting, independent, and consistently brilliant artists recording today at the top of their game. Sword in hand, with the forces of nature behind her, and with that amazing voice, this album has to be an early contender for the end of year polls; indeed, with such dedication has this reviewer been hitting the back button each time it finishes, some may find they listen to nothing else all year.