Around this time last year, I compiled one of these features for an artist I was unfamiliar with, Lyle Lovett. An unexpected reader request, but I remember liking the idea of having this feature operate both as a way to discuss personal favorite artists, and as a way to open the door for new discoveries. Considering there’s more than enough current art out there to keep one occupied with new finds, I actually find it refreshing – and, oddly enough, relaxing – to reach back in time for those own new personal discoveries.
So, in what just may become a yearly tradition, I’m back again by request to discuss my favorite songs by an artist I only became acquainted with over the past month and a half, Neko Case.
Well, not entirely unfamiliar, mind you. Writing about music as a hobby for over seven years has, somewhat sadly enough, trained me to keep up with the never-ending slew of releases. So I know of 2018’s Hell-On, and I’m familiar with her brilliant collaborative project with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, 2016’s case/lang/veirs. And I swore I always meant to listen further back, you know, someday.
So, the actual deep-dive? That was as fascinating as I had hoped it would be. Sure, 1997’s Virginian is a bit rough-around-the-edges and somewhat awkward in trying to find a more unique footing in the then-growing alt-country world, but I was blown away by what followed afterward. Her early work is known for being relentlessly bloodthirsty, and given my love for murder ballads seeped in country and Southern gothic traditions, Furnace Room Lullaby and Blacklisted became instant favorites of mine, tough as they are to take in and even tougher so to properly decode (over five listens in with each, I’m still discovering new things to love).
I found it even more fascinating, then, to discover that as her songwriting grew even more obtuse and shrouded in metaphors and fables, her popularity grew. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is just as grizzly as what became before it, but it’s also less direct in its messaging – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. From there, however, things get a bit stranger. From what I could gather, fans are a bit more split on records like 2009’s Middle Cyclone and 2013’s The Worse Things Get…, both of which are still lyrically dense but more groove-heavy and brighter in their compositional aspects, eschewing some of the darker realism of past works in favor of something more easily accessible.
It’s a fair criticism, if not one I necessarily agree with, but I will admit I missed some of the rougher edges of those early albums when going through these particular projects. It’s why I find it so humorous that I eventually circled back to Hell-On, which in hindsight feels like the absolute wrong introductory album to her work … but also the right one for me. Listening to it in 2018 I was awestruck by it but unable to fully understand or appreciate it. Now, it’s the perfect blend of every positive element that encapsulates the Neko Case experience.
All of which is to say (lengthy introduction and all), this still feels like one of the stranger features I’ve compiled, even if I fully plan on honoring the original request. Case’s work is best experienced through listening to her full albums, and I’ll admit I’m still untangling new things to love about the following tracks with every re-listen – I’d like to stress that this was a discovery I’m glad I made. I am by no means coming at this from the perspective of a connoisseur of her work or as someone trying to create a definitive guide to it. Oh, and I understand she’s against the idea of ranking music in general, and I can’t blame her for that, hence why I’ll also throw out the usual disclaimer that these rankings don’t *really* matter. Let’s move forward anyway, shall we?
No. 15, “People Got a Lotta Nerve” (written by Neko Case)
Ah, even with one of her catchiest hooks and a well-developed power-pop punk groove riding this particular wave, there’s always danger lurking within Neko Case’s work. Of course, the danger here depends on whether one decides to take this for what it is – a song sung from the perspective of wild animals and how it should come as no surprise that they’re man-man-man-eaters – or read deeper into it, which one should always do for the full Case experience. To me it’s more about vices and various temptations, how we’re always attracted to what we shouldn’t want but try for anyway, consequences be damned … even if we charge ahead never thinking we’ll actually have to face such consequences. “It will end again in bullets, friend” – it’s the sort of direct realism she’s known for that will encapsulate, well, basically every song here.
No. 14, “Halls of Sarah” (written by Neko Case and Paul Rigby)
My favorite thing I learned from exploring Case’s discography – especially when I revisited Hell-On with better context in mind – is how self-aware she is of her work and what it means to audiences that enjoy it. I’d call it playing coy if she wanted her ultimate surface messages shrouded in obscurity, but that’s not the case with “Halls of Sarah.”
Really, it’s a fake-out – a tribute to a nameless character framed through multiple fantastic crescendos and parallels to a woman and the environment around her, condemned by society, where the ultimate point is to trick listeners into caring about her made-up plights. I do, at least, because I’m one of many, many people naturally drawn to art where suffering is involved, which involves a huge chunk of Case’s discography. Of course, therein lies the danger – assuming that all great art needs that inspirational muse or someone real to suffer in order for it to manifest, and how we romanticize it, intentionally or not. Artists can just be what they are: storytellers. Damn you, Case; you really do know your audience.
No. 13, “Dirty Knife” (written by Neko Case)
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is arguably Case’s toughest nut to crack, and I would argue it’s better to consider its tracks as part of the bigger, longer story it tells, even if everything can operate independently, as well. “Dirty Knife” is the first overtly bloodthirsty track of hers we’ll explore through this list, but it’s not necessarily as rough-sounding as other examples.
Actually, I love how this plays out akin to, say, a small theatrical production. There’s a polished intimacy that follows every note, from the quaint opening acoustics that fool audiences into thinking it’ll be a gentler moment on the album, until the madness begins in both the content and the stabs of cello that ramp up the tension – all leading to a fantastic climax where the chilling Ukrainian singing hammers in this downward spiral of one poor soul’s sanity. Intense, and hell, we’re only getting started.
No. 12, “The Tigers Have Spoken” (written by Neko Case and the Sadies)
I had put off hearing Case’s live albums until near the end of my deep-dive, my reasoning being that I wanted to experience her songs for the first time on their respective studio albums, in order to absorb the fuller pictures. Little did I know that The Tigers Have Spoken is a bit of an anomaly to the live album format in general, featuring only a small amount of songs heard before (be they through covers or Case’s originals, the former of which are equally essential to her career) and a larger amount of originals one won’t hear on her other albums. They’re just raw, hidden gems – like an anti-greatest hits album.
They’re also among her most straightforward tracks, too, the title track an examination of the enslaved titular animal that draws both from Case’s love for animal-related metaphors, and her underrated sense of compassion and empathy for the world around her. The most heartbreaking moment, to me, comes in said tiger’s only memories before death being of when it was young and cared for by a woman, a surrogate mother who was inevitably in part responsible for keeping it caged. Uncomfortable, but we should all know that by now.
No. 11, “Blacklisted” (written by Neko Case)
The thing one has to learn about Case is that, in essence, she’s not all who we want her to be, and that’s OK. She was a punk-rocker whose solo debut album was wrapped in rich country texture, a release that conveniently coincided with the genre’s growing alt-country movement. It makes too much sense, until you realize she hated that term and wanted to just be known as a country singer, one who could even play the Grand Ole Opry … until she was blacklisted from the organization.
And her relationship with the genre has been shaky ever since, a damn shame if there was ever one. I’d love for this track to stand as a punk-rock-inspired “fuck you” to the establishment, but I learned my lesson from “Halls of Sarah.” This can just be another ominous, haunting song of hers steeped in reverb always hinting at something dark and foreboding on the horizon – in this case the metaphorical long black train full of temptation and sin – the title track to an album that saw her push further into her now-distinctive noir-esque songwriting focus. And it can employ a seemingly cacophonous mix of ghostly pedal steel and atmospheric keys to do so, another track that ends with Case’s character willing to embrace whatever lies ahead waiting for her.
No. 10, “If You Knew” (written by Neko Case and the Sadies)
And coming directly off our previous discussion, “If You Knew” proves that if Case wanted that country radio crown, she could have had it. Again, her cuts from The Tigers Have Spoken tend to be much more direct and straightforward, but there’s still that quintessential sense of foreboding danger, framed here through a man following the siren song of someone bound to spit him up and chew him out, with Case’s character caught squarely within the love triangle as his current partner resigned to fight for whatever is left between them. But that’s the thing – her characters always embrace the unknown, hence why an end like “If you knew what I know / Baby you wouldn’t leave me / You wouldn’t turn away from my love / It’s what you said that you believed in” comes across as such a heartbreakingly desperate attempt to regain what’s already gone, even despite her urgency. Killer melodic groove, too.
No. 9, “Porchlight” (written by Neko Case, Brian Connelly, Don Kerr, and Ron Sexsmith)
I’ve tried to avoid discussing Case as a singer thus far. It’s the talking point that tends to overshadow her work, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – she is one hell of a singer with some of the purest clarity of tone I’ve ever heard that cuts to the bone, able to recall any past great influence you’d like but all her own, ultimately – it’s just not all that defines her as an artist. But it is why I find this particular track so alluring, where Case’s yearning melancholy trades between more straightforward loneliness and that haunting echo in the refrain alongside Kelly Hogan to note the distance that defines this song. Furnance Room Lullaby in general feels like it’s purposefully distanced from a sense of home or belonging, and this is one of its most effective representations of that.
No. 8, “Hold On, Hold On” (written by Neko Case and the Sadies)
One should never assume artists write solely about themselves or that every picture painted is some inner reflection of themselves they can’t show or tell the audience directly; it’s as dangerous as assuming all great art stems from some sort of suffering. It’s especially true for Case, which is what makes the self-admitted autobiographical nature of “Hold On, Hold On” come as a surprise – and what makes her constant disillusionment with love all the more heartbreaking. And against the almost claustrophobic groove that can manage to still sizzle with a darkness all its own, it’s a track meant to be uncomfortable in every respect, right down to an ironic detachment with art itself for having lied and offer some promise of something that can’t be delivered.
No. 7, “I Wish I Was the Moon” (written by Neko Case)
The past few entries have dealt heavily with themes of isolation and loneliness, seemingly caught at breaking points. I don’t know how she did it, but Case managed to make another track just like that, only with the bones of some old, long-lost folk ballad and just a hint of optimism in the chipper waltz cadence and steady accordion. And she managed to sketch the picture of a lonely soul not necessarily at their breaking point, but at the end ready to give in to that final kiss of death … and perhaps find the peace and release they’ve yearned for and couldn’t find on Earth. Even despite everything, there’s something oddly cathartic about this song – beautiful, too, but another moment where the beauty is, paradoxically, hard to confront.
No. 6, “Furnance Room Lullaby” (written by Neko Case and Travis Good)
Look, one could argue it’s ostensibly an Edgar Allan Poe-inspired prototype to much darker and more original stories Case would deliver on follow-up projects. But I don’t think “Furnance Room Lullaby” – the song or album – gets enough love for what it did on its own, especially when it seems like every line feels like it gives way to some deeper complexity. Like how the first verse hints that there was love between these two partners and they equally broke each other down, just to a point of no return for one of them.
Case’s characters all seem to carry broken spirits, still able to carry on even if they’re all headed for are consequences they know they’ve earned. But through Case’s bone-chilling tone and clarity – really, it’s worth noting how she pretty much carries this alone – no matter what those characters have done or can’t return from, there’s still something oddly sympathetic about their plights.
No. 5, “Pitch or Honey” (written by Neko Case and Paul Andrew Rigby)
“Hey, I love you better when you’re wild / Suits you better if I say so” – that kind of says it all, doesn’t it? It’s a song about songs – Case’s song specifically, where on an album where she’s very aware of her audience’s relationship with her music, she knows she can make what she wants and we’ll all do our best to untangle the beauty within.
And she’s right, but I also love how it can speak to an outgrowth of her own artistic journey, where her emotional cores have come across strongly as both pitch and honey before – even here, with the melodic change-ups. And either way, the wildness embedded within makes for an exciting ride regardless – we just want to hear it. It’s a song that directly references the artist/listener relationship in a way that feels self-aware and humble … and earned.
No. 4, “Deep Red Bells” (written by Neko Case)
Savage and slaughterous as Case’s early work is, the lives lost aren’t sacrificed for pure shock and awe. They stem from a tried-and-true songwriting tradition, but there’s always a deeper sense of empathy present – either for the victims or for the inner downward spirals of those mad, empty souls.
And no matter how good an artist is at crafting a fictional three-minute tale, there will always be the unnamed extended victims affected by those losses, either through personal loss or deeper trauma that can’t possibly be accurately depicted. So “Deep Red Bells” is as much a true-crime tale about the Green River Killer as it is about his victims … and even the ones he didn’t get to before he was caught. It is, again, a note on Case’s ironic sense of compassion even in her darkest tales, able to note how the killer’s chosen type of victim (in real life, prostitutes) affects all women regardless, forever changed by witnessing pure evil’s capabilities and paralyzed by one of the deepest kinds of fear.
No. 3, “Sleep All Summer” (written by Eric Bachmann)
This isn’t the cover within Case’s discography I expected to resonate so loudly with me – I don’t say this lightly, but I think everything she’s chosen to cover before has fit naturally alongside her own work. So here comes an old indie-rock staple out of nowhere, in which Case teams up with original writer Eric Bachmann to recreate it, and promptly blows the tepid original to smithereens.
Granted, I actually think the time and distance is what adds so much weight to its sentiment, first with better production courtesy of the anchored piano that emphasizes the deep-rooted sadness of this rekindled yet missed connection. Despite coming at it from an older perspective, though, they both know they’re too old to find something deeper with each other that would satisfy them both, hence why there’s so much sadness rooted in knowing they’re only using each other for selfish short-term benefits. And with Bachmann’s haggard delivery sporting excellently natural chemistry alongside Case’s somber tone, it’s a track that says all it needs to through them and the mood in general – not unlike most Case songs, really.
No. 2, “Calling Cards” (written by Neko Case and Paul Rigby)
The last few entries on my list have resonated with me for far simpler reasons than what’s come before, mostly because of little moments that carry such underrated, awestruck beauty. After all, “Calling Cards” is another Case song to note distance, but it doesn’t feel as lonely as similar tracks. There’s almost a sense of closure here, knowing that whatever relationship was formed here can still carry on in some form, even if the past will always be the past and those connections aren’t as strong as they once were – even despite Case’s melancholic delivery hinting that she’d like to try again and rekindle those old sparks.
It’s the sort of road-weary track one expects to eventually hear from any (meaning every) musician who constantly travels for a living. But there’s still something so simply beautiful and relatable to the conceit of wanting to reach back out to an old friend but not quite knowing how. And then the fantastic liquid warmth shines through to accent that bittersweet feeling, right down to well-timed, subtle clarinet flourishes, which I’ll admit may have sold me even further on this song. Simple and short, but devastating regardless through every second.
Before unveiling my No. 1 pick, here are a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for this list, presented in no particular order:
“Thrice All American” (written by Scott Betts, Neko Case, Brian Connelly, John Ramberg, and Joel Trueblood)
“Ghost Wiring” (written by Neko Case)
“Red Tide” (written by Neko Case)
“Favorite” (written by Neko Case)
“City Swans” (written by Neko Case and Paul Rigby)
“She’s Not There” (written by Rod Argent)
“Where Did I Leave That Fire?” (written by Neko Case)
And now, my No. 1 pick:
No. 1, “South Tacoma Way” (written by Scott Betts, Neko Case, Brian Connelly, and Joel Trueblood)
How crushingly ironic: I had been able to love and appreciate the other entries here from a relatively safe distance; such is the case when listening to a storyteller. But this rare first-person Case narrative hit me like a sledgehammer the first time I heard it – an easy pick for a favorite that’s uneasy in every other regard, simultaneously told through a day-long funeral arc but mostly through still images. After all, memories of those kinds of days are experienced and remembered in blurs, trying to make sense of something that’s not made to provide any easy answers for us. Pain, anguish, maybe even happiness … all to be kept aside for the sake of a ritual where we hold it together to say goodbye to someone.
No one is expected to know how to master that art, and it’s another moment where subtext does the heavy lifting here, finding Case’s character at odds with how to react at all. Perhaps it’s because the deceased is an old lover they can’t let go of, or perhaps the relationship was frayed and the complexities have intensified in the moment. Maybe it’s because she’ll find better ways to honor this unnamed person when time passes and she finds the strength.
Whatever it may be, it’s a song about the constant, cruel nature of death and the fragile nature of life itself – ironically, or perhaps not ironically if you’ve given my arguments elsewhere some thought, made by a singer with a considerable body count in her discography – told through an uneasy waltz. Sobering in the most chilling way possible, and “I can’t comprehend the ways I miss you / They come to light in my mistakes” will inevitably go down as an all-time favorite line of mine. And for anyone else who finds saying goodbye nearly impossible … well, this is about the best remedy one will find.