Singer Neko Case has always been a little backward in coming forward, blending seemingly personal narrative arcs with dreamlike whimsy to create intoxicating, aural elixirs. While most of her output as a solo artist has been in the vein of alt-country, 2013’s (wordily titled) The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You saw Case lean into the alternative elements of her sound. While The Worse Things Get lacked the immediate charm of the preceding Middle Cyclone, it demonstrated Case’s desire to push her creative boundaries and with Hell-On, her seventh album, she has clearly found sure-footing with her expanded musical palette.
“I’m here to tell you a story/I’m here to tell you a lie” Case imparts on Winnie, and while the line is delivered in character for the album’s ninth song, it nonetheless feels like a statement of intent for the album, a meta-commentary on form and function which, when combined with the contrasting negations and affirmations of the titular Hell-On which opens the record, elevates Case’s lyrical style to the sublime. The album’s strengths aren’t just lyrical with Halls of Sarah features good movement between the vocals and guitars, while Dirty Diamond contains subtle driving rhythms, and Hell-On is almost rhapsodic with its shifting musicality.
Smattered throughout Hell-On are performances from k.d. lang and Laura Veirs (with whom Case released case/lang/veirs in 2016), Mark Lanegan, AC Newman, and Beth Ditto. These artists’ contributions are seamlessly integrated into the songs without unnecessary fanfare or attention, often taking on support roles in the background, although Lanegan’s distinctive baritone and Eric Bachmann’s vocal contribution on Curse of the I-5 Corridor and Sleep All Summer respectively, provide a textured counterpoint to Case’s mellifluous voice. If forced to choose only one song from Hell-On to listen to, one would be well advised to give serious consideration to Oracle of the Maritimes – co-written with Veirs – which hints at post-rock influences and maintains its menace and tension expertly. With Hell-On, Case continues to demonstrate why she is such a highly regarded singer and songwriter.