The popular read on Neko Case is that she’s an artist born a lifetime too late to have taken her rightful place in the pantheon of country music’s greatest women—that “Neko” would hold up alongside “Patsy,” “Tammy,” and “Loretta.” Case’s first few albums, without a doubt, deserve such high praise and support that line of revisionist history. What continues to impress about Furnace Room Lullaby and Blacklisted (and The Virginian and 2004’s live disc The Tigers Have Spoken, to slightly lesser degrees) is Case’s refusal to shy away from the darkest corners of the genre’s past as she uses the hallmarks of classic country songwriting—the “make your point and get the hell out” brevity of songs, the economy of the language, the occasional foray into minor key arrangements—to articulate a wholly modern perspective on matters of love and loss that have, by now, become archetypes.
It isn’t just that those albums prove that Case gets the genre better than just about anyone claiming to record either mainstream or “alt” country music today, it’s that she does something legitimately interesting and progressive with that knowledge. That she’s possessed of a voice that melds Patsy’s unerring control and sense of pitch with Loretta’s fire and Emmylou’s otherwise peerless phrasing is, in a way, incidental to what she does with that voice, despite the fact that so much of what’s written about Case focuses disproportionately on her vocals.
Having already made her point, as it were, with her version of classic country styles, Case’s latest album, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, continues down a path she first acknowledged on Blacklisted, where, on standouts like “Things That Scare Me” and the jaw-dropping title track, she began to experiment with typical verse-chorus-verse structures and melodies that tell their own linear story rather than repeat their hooks at predictable intervals. Drawing inspiration from a variety of unusual sources (a Russian folk tale her grandmother told her as a child on the title track, an overhauled spiritual on “John Saw That Number,” and the true story of a family’s descent into madness for “Dirty Knife”), Case’s songwriting on Fox Confessor depicts an eerie, mysterious version of the working class.
Though she loses some of the intimacy of the best first-person narratives from her previous albums (Furnace Room Lullaby’s devastating “South Tacoma Way,” or “Favorite,” officially released on The Tigers Have Spoken after first appearing on the lo-fi Canadian Amp EP), Case more than compensates with the 12 most ambitious, dense songs she’s yet committed to record. One of her most distinctive gifts as a writer is her ability to use unforced, natural language to capture a vivid image that becomes the focal point for a song that, while grounded in realism, still leaves some interpretive wiggle-room. Consider the opening stanza of “Star Witness,” her updated take on “Last Kiss”: “My true love drowned in a dirty old pan/Of oil that did run from the block/Of a falcon sedan 1969/The paper said ’75/There were no survivors/None found alive.”
Of course, another thing that elevates Case above the antiseptic pap that passes for modern country music is that when things go wrong in her songs, well, sometimes people end up dead. Death hangs heavy on Fox Confessor—even the uptempo gospel throwback bears a reference to Revelations’ beast rising out of the sea and has a man who was beheaded for its subject, to say nothing of the untimely demise met by the narrator of “Lion’s Jaws” or the specters who linger around “A Widow’s Toast.” Approaching death with an uneasy fascination and the sensitivity of a poet, Case’s American gothic recalls the best work of one of country’s most unheralded talents—Bobbie Gentry, known almost exclusively for the Grammy-winning “Ode To Billie Joe”—even as she transcends genre with a catalogue that, with each new album, grows more essential and sounds ever more timeless.