Even before listening to her new album, it’s apparent that Neko Case’s aura of mystery will remain intact. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood? Not much clarity there. I gather from “bringing the flood” that Case might continue to indulge her penchant for obliquely referencing tragedy, either biblical or personal.
It’s been four years since Case’s previous solo studio LP. In the meantime, she’s had a hand in two albums with the New Pornographers (Electric Version in 2003 and Twin Cinema last year) and a live EP, The Tigers Have Spoken, all distinctly more upbeat affairs than 2002’s Blacklisted. I suspect that a fair share of demons and doubts have been stored up over this time. Upon first listen, my suspicions are confirmed: The titular flood that rushes through Fox Confessor is not easily explained, but it’s clearly deep — and dark.
Case’s genius as a writer, evident from track to track, stems from her ability to write lyrics that conjure up amazingly clear images but that still leave the songs as a whole up to interpretation. “Dirty Knife” evokes scenes where “cascading letters pool on the stairs” and “furniture [is] piled high for firewood,” although how and why it is that “suddenly, the madness came” and “blood runs crazy” is never articulated. Her approach makes the song infinitely more disturbing.
Haunting is so overused when describing a singer’s voice, but it’s the best word to describe Case’s vocal style. She has a natural reverberation in her singing that recalls Tammy Wynette, and throughout Fox Confessor, Case (who produced the album herself) multi-tracks her voice into an ethereal echo. The album is layered with a multitude of instruments, but she blends her band seamlessly into the fabric of her songs. Jon Rauhouse’s spectral guitar work is a notable exception, but the music serves mostly to complement her fragmented story-songs.
Songs are brief, most under three minutes. Case often seems to pull the plug after a chorus and two verses, as though she feels it unnecessary to repeat herself. This serves two purposes: It keeps the songs lean and urgent, and on the album’s best moments, it leaves us wanting more.
There’s such a bone-deep melancholy that drenches all of Case’s solo work. (I find it fascinating that the same woman who seems so relaxed, droll and winning in interviews and onstage is also capable of writing such psychologically scarred songs.) Even the moments of redemption in Fox Confessor Brings the Flood stem from sorrow and loss. The grace with which Case chronicles these feelings is what makes her such an important artist and what makes her album a masterpiece.
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