Untamed natural forces drive much of the poetic storytelling on Neko Case’s seventh album, Hell-On, but the singer-songwriter remains most concerned with the volatility of human nature. Though the album’s title and cover art—in which Case wears a cluster of cigarettes on her head and appears to light her hair aflame—may hint at a fixation on self-destruction, the theme of persevering in the face of depravity and exploitation courses through the songs. The folky “Last Lion of Albion” comments on colonialism and capitalism as co-opting forces, as Case addresses the titular animal: “You’ll feel extinction/When you see your face on their money.” On the smoldering “Dirty Diamond,” she imagines an idyllic, unrestrained age at “the dawn of man” before delving into how the modern world is literally fueled by ancient deaths, singing, “Oh, petroleum/You’re the top predator now.”
While Case defined herself in terms of the human species rather than gender on 2013’s The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, she adroitly addresses womanhood on Hell-On both through expressions of empowerment and self-doubt. On the title track, she asserts to a lover that “You’ll not be my master/You’re barely my guest,” while amid the pensive “Oracle of the Maritimes” she wrestles with feelings of inadequacy. She also rips toxic masculinity: “Halls of Sarah” calls out conquest-driven men who approach “loving womankind as lions love Christians,” while “My Uncle’s Navy” evocatively describes a cruel uncle who needlessly harmed animals in front of children and insisted his word was absolute truth.
Like much of Case’s prior work, Hell-On ebbs and flows from sparse to lush instrumentation, often within the same song. Mark Lanegan’s gravelly backing vocals add texture to Case’s shimmering alto during the sparely arranged opening of “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” before the track builds into an emphatic country-tinged guitar and piano rhythm. But that song also indulges in well-worn references to dirt roads and dive bars in conveying maudlin nostalgia for restless youth and the “sweet, sweet burn” of underage drinking. Likewise, Case’s duet with Eric Bachmann on a cover of his song “Sleep All Summer” feels out of place among the album’s more poetic offerings, both in how the back-and-forth vocals clash with, rather than complement, each other and in Bachmann’s more stilted songwriting. Backing vocals from Beth Ditto, Kelly Hogan, and Nora O’Connor on “Winnie” provide a far more seamless accompaniment, intertwining with Case’s impassioned paean to strong women in her life and the importance of companionship with a kindred spirit.
Hell-On may not break new ground for Case, but she continues to cultivate fresh expressions of personal growth from familiar terrain. These vivid meditations on the Janus-faced nature of a civilization that’s both life-sustaining and destructive are best summed up on “Pitch or Honey,” as Case muses how, in the moment, it’s often difficult to know if the residue of our actions will yield harm or health. As the singer ultimately declares that “I love you better when you’re wild,” it’s in response to a chaotic world that leaves her both breathlessly enamored and boldly defiant.