As Neko Case's brand of macabre, modern American gothic music has become more obtuse and difficult, the acclaimed singer-songwriter has only seen her popularity expand. That trend culminated with her bestselling record to date, 2006's extraordinary Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, an album on which Case's narratives became more obscure than those of any other songwriter on the contemporary Americana/alt-country/whatever scene. So it's something of a surprise that her latest project, Middle Cyclone, makes an about-face and returns her to the relative accessibility of earlier albums like Blacklisted and her Canadian AMP EP.
What's accessible by Case's lofty standards is still plenty dense and slippery, with even a straightforward bit of power-pop like lead single “People Got a Lotta Nerve” finding her adopting the persona of a killer whale, and opener “This Tornado Loves You,” which imposes the destructive will of a force of nature onto an otherwise conventional love song. And she's still prone to flights of self-indulgence: Cyclone's closing track, “Marais La Nuit,” consists entirely of 30 minutes of frogs singing. While “Marais” smacks of pretense, the track does function as part of the album's song cycle, on which Case's fascination with nature imagery reaches its apex.
Case has sung occasionally about being haunted by the birds that followed her to school and about dreams of hitting deer with her car, but here she invokes animal or other natural symbolism on most every song. While she's demonstrated skillful, subtle use of such evocative images in the context of broader narratives on her earlier albums, Cyclone underwhelms slightly because of how didactic these tropes have become. There's something to be said for thematic coherence, but songs like “I'm an Animal” and a cover of Sparks's “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” are just too heavy-handed to be truly effective.
Case is in typically phenomenal voice throughout the record, and her production choices draw from both the dark country of her first few albums and from her work in the New Pornographers. To that end, the album is certainly a success. But the obviousness of the songs and themes makes Cyclone among Case's least challenging efforts. But it's only because she's set her own bar so high that an album like this can feel like a letdown.