Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
Welcome aboard. If this is your first time strap yourself in, we're not in Kansas anymore, things are a little, well strange, round here. Middle Cyclone is effectively The Jungle Book rewritten by Sylvia Plath and performed by Loretta Lynn. If you didn't know better you'd think it's creator was raised by wolves. It's all the magic, tragedy, brutality and beauty of nature - a twisted Disney subterranea of whales, starlings, spiders, doves, magpies and fireflies. It's a peek under the surface, or as the Situationists' believed “Under the pavement, the beach!”. It's also a record of discovery, cracking one-liners, melodic twisters and rich, unexpected sounds.
Middle Cyclone is an album of love songs. But not the sugarcoated kind that Mariah or Beyonce peddle. I can't imagine them singing “The next time you say forever I will punch you in your face”. This is raw, authentic love in all its glory, pain, fear, passion, fire and blood. It's love with barbed wire wrapped around its heart. “Carve your name across three counties, Ground it in with bloody hides, their broken necks will lie in the ditch till you stop it”...and that's just the opener, This Tornado Loves You, which taunts like a Matador, caressing with one hand, killing with the other. The fatal strike “If you tried to pick me up I would die in your arms” had me reminiscing that Sylvia Plath beauty, “What did my hands do before they held you” and when Neko cries “What will make you believe me?”, it's hard not to concede defeat.
But don't be fooled by a kindly smile or stray tear, this is the living, breathing, real thing. For every slip of sensitivity and surrender (“I caught his words in my open mouth”), there's always a kick in the balls waiting in the wings. Take the poison pen of Vengeance Is Sleeping; Innocent acoustic loveliness on top but seething underneath, “Vengeance built me hastily and I drag the clanging notion I was nobody”. But then she concludes “You're the one that I still miss”. It's as confusing, complex and bloody contrary as real life. Ditto the sensual longing of Fever, “my dove is home, my breast is warm”, which recalls Wordsworth's The Mad Mother. Like I said, complex.
Despite the Americana Gothic imagery (“Morning's teeth are lit, they are waiting”), the music itself is broadly upbeat and beautiful, even when macabre. This sweetness allows a classic deception by juxtaposition as the lyrics are commonly heartbreaking. There's armfuls of Hancock-esque gallows humour and some killer pay-offs. The way the tales wrap their wings around the forlorn and the lonely even bring to mind The Smiths; “I miss how you sigh yourself to sleep”, so vivid and witty. They also channel the grimly romantic 1950's 'Death Discs' like Tell Laura I Love Her and Endless Sleep, particularly the fiery stomp of Red Tide or the dustbowl Polar Nettles, “his smoking remains blown out in a kiss by the Sunday sun” .
The brilliantly titled Prison Girls is the longest track and also the darkest. It's six minutes of brooding, pendulum swing, back and forth like a Panther pacing a cage. "Prison girls are not impressed, they're the ones who have to clean this mess; they've traded more for cigarettes than I've managed to express”. Its hypnotic slow burn had me imagining Sailor and Lula from Lynch's Wild At Heart. “I love your long shadows and your gunpowder eyes”, yup wild at heart and weird on top.
People Got A Lotta Nerve is the solo shot at mainstream radio, a joyous power pop ride which recalls her Summer job with The New Pornographers. It encapsulates the album's animal instinct theme in one catchy sing-it-at-the-bus-stop soundbite, “I'm a man, man, man, man, man, man, maneater but still you're surprised 'prised 'prised when I eat ya”. The nature theme is most prevalent though on I'm An Animal, from the King Kong drums to its “Me-Tarzan,you-Jane” call to get real and ditch our phony airs and graces. “I'm An Animal, You're an animal too” purrs The Case and I adjust my collar and wonder if someone just turned the heating up. “I love you today”, oh well I'll take what I can get.
It's an album of highlights but, so far, Middle Cyclone itself flies highest. It's voice & guitar only with sprinkles of magic dust thanks to a heavenly ghost choir and a squeaky old music box. “Did someone make a fool of me 'fore I could show 'em how it's done...I would trade my empire for ashes, but I choke it back how much I need love”. Hello goosebumps. Two inspired covers fit seamlessly alongside the originals too; the Dusty Springfield-esque showstopper of Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth (Sparks) and the whipsmart tin pan alley serenade of Don't Forget Me (Harry Nilsson), ”I'll miss you when I'm lonely, I'll miss the alimony too”.
We wave farewell to this wild world with Marais La Nuit (Night Swamp). 30 minutes of crickets. Yes, Crickets. Yes, 30 minutes. It's strangely peaceful for night writing but fails to score at parties. Yes it's baffling, but it's also admirably mischievous.
“It will end again in moonlit song”. Neko Case turns you into a kid listening to midnight campfire tales. “Tell us a story Auntie Neko!” bleat the children.“OK, here's one about a tiger”. “Ace!” scream the kids excitedly. [Half an hour passes] “..and then the tiger tears off the farmer's face and escapes”. [Kids look terrified and quickly try to go to sleep with teary eyes, haunted by visions of bones and fangs]. Middle Cyclone is like seeing a ghost in the night. In a frozen heartbeat it pins you down, bewitches you and leaves before you're ready to say goodbye. It's a phantom, a feeling, that ol' black magic which can't be explained. Catch that feeling whilst you can.