As a writer, I often vacillate between the desire to mediate my experience of an album through writing about it only after I've truly spent some quality time with the music, and the vicious demands that are latently laced throughout threats of being too far "behind the curve" at that point to consider those words at all relevant. In other words, if an album drops on a Tuesday and I haven't ingested, digested, and regurgitated my thoughts on it by the weeks' end, I'm so pitifully behind the gestalt-y newness of the mini-movement a new album causes within the circles who appreciate its impact, that I might as well chuck my keyboard out the window and resolve to listen to more Kurt Cobain - or any other immortal voice of a given generation who died too early to feel the sting of a poor review.
And while that may be true - by obfuscating a still-shrinkwrapped album in a fluffy cloud of critic-friendly doublespeak, I may have made my presence known in an endless barrage of the very immediate now-ness of album reviews, but - and I deliberately channel the venerable Dave Hickey here - what about the music, man?
In this case, what about Neko? Ms. Case certainly makes the type of music that does not, in any way, shape, or form - in all its ineffable confidence - rely on the tired tropes of music critics to somehow bolster it and send it rocketing into some kind of prevailing stratosphere of cultural accreditation. Such is the delight inherent in Case's music in a day and age where far too many artists are acutely, detrimentally aware of the overarching metanarrative governing their existence and the symbiotic relationship between so-called artist and (even more) so-called critic.
More to the point: Case's vocals slingshot between the kind of vulnerable ruminations that can break a heart with little more than a clever turn of phrase, and powerhouse lung-rattling pronunciations that could shatter the windows of a cathedral. And often she harnesses these extremes within a single line or verse. Neko Case is the woman who, on "Middle Cyclone" plaintively intones, "Can't give up acting tough / it's all that I'm made of. Can't scrape together quite enough / to ride a bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love." And she's the same singer who, just a few short minutes prior, mustered all the mysterious provocations of a woman in love as a force of nature and declares, "My love, I am the speed of sound / I left them motherless, fatherless, their souls dangling inside out from their mouths / but it's never enough / I want you."
Such self-possession and nervy, balls-out confidence has always been Case's most alluring trait especially when it's turned in reflection to her ability to take it down a notch without losing an ounce of lyrical vulnerability. In fact, Neko Case's ability to use that tremulous voice of hers as a weapon of emotional destruction is one of the things I continually come back to when I listen to her various albums and find my own heart cracking - just a little - at the hands of such an instrument. Whether singing in the first person or conjuring another lonely character, confessions like those uttered on "Vengeance is Sleeping" or "Magpie to the Morning" (respectively: "But you're the one that I still miss / and it's ruthless that it comes as no surprise." And, "Come on sorrow, take your own advice / hide under the bed, turn out the light. / The stars this night in the sky are ringing out / you can almost hear them saying / close your eyes now, kid.") unfurl gently and unexpectedly, the tattered page of a journal discovered underfoot and cherished despite the author's anonymity.
And it's taken me five months for those revelations to take hold. It's taken five months for the impact of "Don't Forget Me" and its cascading tidal wave of vintage pianos supporting Case's climactic command "Come on, get happy!" to truly make its mark. It's taken five months of "This Tornado Loves You" coursing, pounding, rattling the windows of my car for me to fully realize the brilliance of Case's songwriting. In other words, until now, I haven't felt that I could even process Middle Cyclone in a way that might somehow pay tribute to the fact that it is an incredible album. Emotionally deft and ardently melodic, it's a flawless collection of songs that I'm only just now scratching the surface of. And whether or not this proclamation ever makes its mark, it's sufficient for me that Neko Case's Middle Cyclone has staked a claim on a piece of my heart, a piece that dares hope for something, dares to speak truths that are worth declaring, dares to feel deep sorrow and soaring joy in equal measure.
So to answer my previous inquiry: What about the music, man?
Don't bother me. I'm listening to Neko Case, man.