Sunday, December 10, 2006

It’s not for you to know, but for you to weep and wonder

#18 Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti, 2006)

Up until this album, I’ve felt that Neko Case’s material has been (sometimes very) good, but not great, held up in large degree by personality and that astonishing, booming voice. Some of her earlier songs, like “I Wish I Was the Moon,” and “Deep Red Bells,” gave glimpses, but only glimpses, of the mystery I’ve been looking for behind the countrified swagger. But on “Fox Confessor,” Case has created an album that finally fulfills the promise of what a Neko Case record could be. She’s done so, paradoxically, by putting together a group of songs that are strong precisely because they gesture toward something they never quite reach. Fox Confessor wells up with a mix of ache, longing, and ambiguity that have repeatedly echoed in my brain (and car and apt. and ipod). The sound of this album is so memorable and catchy that it wasn’t until after half a dozen listens that I realized that many of the songs are not structured around the traditional verse-chorus-repeat pop song format. I suppose that one could conceive of it as a criticism to say that some of the songs sound more like sketches than full songs, but even those that feel like half-songs (“A Widow’s Toast,” the chilling “At Last”) are more addictively evocative than frustratingly incomplete.

This is a record permeated with madness and mysticism. “Hold On, Hold On,” imagines a narrator who cannot maintain control over her impulses and desires, and dwells on the consequences of that might mean: “It’s the devil I love / and it’s funny, it’s real love/ and it’s real as true love.” Track eight, “Dirty Knife,” tells a tale of a family’s cabin-fevered path to insanity, which culminates with a ghostly and otherworldly (well, otherworldly if you don’t speak Ukrainian) verse sung in Ukrainian accompanied by stabbing cello punctuations. Similarly, the title track stakes out a descent into a dark-night-of-the-soul encounter with the Fox Confessor (an apparent reference to trickster mythology), and features, at the central thematic point of disorientation, a brief bloom of musical dissonance. The last line of the song, “will I ever see you again?/ Will there be no one above me to put my faith in? / I flooded my sleeves as I drove home again” suggests that the return from the encounter cannot be complete, and that the very moment of closeness with the divine is the moment of emptiness and nothingness, the moment of no turning back. The next song, then, a reworking of a traditional gospel tune, “John Saw That Number,” would seem misplaced, or perhaps a counter to the disorientation of the other songs. However, the John the Baptist we see here shows himself to be a crazy magician, an illiterate esoteric numerologist and astrologist, and this song seems to remind us that even the normal religion and experience we are comfortable with (no pagan animal gods, no mad Ukrainians) rests on a foundation just as mysterious and empty and nonsensical.

I shouldn’t get too high and mighty, though – some of the tracks here are full-on pop singalongs. The most immediately catchy is “Star Witness,” but my favorite one on the whole record might be the closer, “The Needle Has Landed.” Perhaps part of why Fox Confessor is so successful owes to the development in genre. Country, the primary format of Case’s earlier recordings, doesn’t seem to be equipped to handle this album’s themes and moods on its own, but with the addition of reverbed Twin-Peaks-style 50s pop, well, that’s a different story. It also doesn’t hurt that Case puts to outstanding use her well-known voice, which has always been able to be both bold and subtle (when I saw her live in support of Fox Confessor, she had Kelly Hogan’s excellent backup vocals turned up to a level almost equal to Case’s, and the effect was amazing: powerful and huge, but never over the top).

1 comment:

Big Cougar said...

This one came real close to making my list, but I couldn't bring myself to rank it in my Top 25. It felt too recent, despite the fact that it's been A number 1 on the playlist since it came out. I've never seen Neko solo, only with the Pornographers, but it is one of my life's goals. Skipping out on her show this year in Chicago (I was out of town) is probably my biggest regret of the year.