The singer-songwriter Neko Case has been a singular voice in music for more than 25 years, both as a solo artist and as a member of the New Pornographers. Her versatility and restless creativity have led to collaborations with a number of other musicians, including the Sadies, Carolyn Mark, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs. In 2022, Case released a 23-song compilation of solo recordings as a digital download. Wild Creatures has now been released on CD and vinyl.
The CD version of Wild Creatures includes an insert with liner notes by journalist Andrea Pitzer and appreciations from fellow songwriters, including Julien Baker and Margo Price. David Byrne’s comments begin with an observation: “Neko Case writes short stories and then sings them.” Case’s lyrics are carefully shaped narratives—some of them confessional—but she also writes songs that vary in style, with melodies that work their way into your consciousness. It helps that she sings them in a voice that is, by turns, beguiling and assertive.
“Furnace Room Lullaby” is chronologically the earliest track on the collection, from the album of the same name released in 2000. That record was credited to Neko Case & Her Boyfriends, and featured guitarist Travis Good of the Sadies and singer-songwriter Kelly Hogan. Case has said she intended the tune to be a murder ballad in the tradition of the Louvin Brothers. The opening line is part yodel, part chant, and the effect is an unsettling intro to a tale of retribution and its aftermath. The lyrics are as poetic as a passage from a Cormac McCarthy novel, and as disturbing:
I twisted you over and under to take you
The coals went so wild as they swallowed the rest
I twisted you under and under to break you
I just couldn’t breathe with your throne on my chest
The arrangement for “Furnace Room Lullaby” has the ring of an old country-and-western tune, but brings in some early-1960s Duane Eddy-style guitar lines that add to the song’s ominous feel. One of Case’s strengths is her ability to switch styles while retaining her unique identity. “Hell-On,” the title track from her 2018 album, is spare and atmospheric, with gently strummed guitars supporting Case’s voice. More layers of instrumentation fill in behind her as the song develops, and her singing intensifies, then recedes as she continues to recount, in a slightly calmer voice, her observations about life’s sometimes dangerous unpredictability.
“Hold On, Hold On,” from Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006), is accessible and wonderfully melodic country pop, with powerful vocals from Case and strong backing from the Sadies, who cowrote the track with her. Good’s jangly guitar gives the song a bright tone. Hogan’s harmony vocals add immeasurable emotional depth to the track, as does Good’s burning guitar solo.
Case produces or coproduces her recordings, and is credited with input on the mixing as well. The results are sonically rich, with lush instrumental details. The gorgeously melodic “Halls of Sarah,” from Hell-On, begins simply, with Case’s voice accompanied by guitar and harmony vocals. Björn Yttling, who coproduced the track, contributes swirling, springy keyboards that add weight and body to the sound. Steve Berlin plays a solo on baritone sax that gives the song a dark tone.
In “Halls of Sarah,” Case is calling out those who say a woman is “my muse,” but the lyrics suggest she also takes exception to the idea that ardent followers of an artist might feel a sense of ownership. Case is an exceptional lyricist, literate and able to pack multiple meanings into a line. “Lady Pilot” describes a trip from Las Vegas to Tucson, as Case takes in the impact of technology on the landscape below her. As her plane flies over Hoover Dam, she notices “Crosshairs of our shadow trace the dam / Told that there were people trapped alive.” The plane’s distance lets her see the Hoover Dam in full, almost as an abstraction, but the deaths of people who helped build it are just the beginning of the toll it would take on people and the land.
“Lady Pilot” has a deceptively light tone that plays against the stark imagery of the lyrics. Case’s voice is strong but restrained on that track, while on others, especially “Favorite,” from the 2004 live album The Tigers Have Spoken, she’s a full-voiced C&W belter. Case’s vocal control and ability to use her voice to give her lyrics the emotional resonance they need are often breathtaking.
Given the consistently high quality of Case’s recordings, Wild Creatures will only whet your appetite if you’re new to her work. Even established fans will want to own it, however. The previously unreleased “Oh, Shadowless” is a welcome addition to her list of fine songs, and the compilation’s sequencing is so smart it stands solidly on its own as an album. It’s the rare 70-minute long player that has no dull moments, and will do nicely until Case releases her next collection of new songs.
. . . Joseph Taylor