Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

I love Neko Case, and in a way, she’s come to a spot where she’s a little overrated.  Just a little.  Let me clarify.  There was a time when I would have thought of Blacklisted, her 2002 record that truly defines her renegade-spirit-with-a-Patsy-Cline-twang persona, as one of the greats of this decade.  I don’t think that now, and not simply becauze 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is a better record, but because I’m a little annoyed.  Case is wonderful but idiosyncratic and difficult.  She doesn’t write songs so much as she writes ideas and gives them melodies, and because her voice is so exciting – a classic beauty melded with modern, elliptical subject matter – the song retains the era of floating mood poems.

All that sounds like the description of a real artist, yes?  Of this she most certainly is.  But a great one?  That’s the qualifier.  Do I think of her as fondly as, say, PJ Harvey or Joni Mitchell or Bruce Springsteen?  That is the standard I am hoping for, and I’m not sure all of her work qualifies, as much as I adore her.  Her voice is intoxicating, and how refreshing that in 2002, she moved from making wonderful neoclassical country albums like Furnace Room Lullaby to Blacklisted where she indulged her quixotic, unique style.  That was a very good record surrounding an idea of being true to the odd impulses that guide you.  She sang in its banjo-assault opening number “Things That Scare Me” of blackbirds frying on a wire for no particular reason but to say “I am the dying breed that still believes/ haunted by American dreams.  Hunted by American dreams.”  I felt strongly at the time that I knew exactly what she meant, that I too needed to be true to myself and my own brand of internal strangeness.

But Fox Confessor Brings The Flood pushed that thesis forward, and did a better job of it, too.  In its penultimate song “At Last,” which lasts barely a minute and a half, sings “And if death should smell my breathing/ as it pass beneath my window/ let it lead me trembling trembling/ I own every bell that tolls me.”  She’s singing of the same type of devotion to her own independence (not that there’s a statute of limitations on how many times that subject is ok to sing about), but her writing was not that good, that precise, and that direct.  “At Last” is a song that articulates Blacklisted without needing to be on the record, and coming at track 11 of Fox Confessor nodding towards death, it also reinforces the strange, more viscous theme of Fox Confessor – the struggles of those who are destined to speak, the consequences of their lives.

Of the two women in the album’s opener, “Margaret vs. Pauline,” we find out “One left a sweater sittin’ on a train/ the other lost three fingers at the cannery.”  Of the witness on the second song, “Star Witness,” we learn she lives in a place “miles from where anyone will find you/ this is nothing new/ no television crew/ they don’t even put on a siren.”  Of Case herself leaves a party with a “Valium from the bride” cursing the songs that lied to her with that cry “Hold on, Hold On.”  She too learned to write songs to speak her truth – a far kinder destiny than those around her.  It only gets worse from there – widows of the St. Angel plane crash, Ukranian stabbing victims, love that leads into lion’s jaws, poor John the Baptist speaking of the lord.

That is interesting, in its way, but what makes Fox Confessor great is that it invites you back for discovery with the quality of the songs’ fullness, even the minimal ones that don’t hit the 2 minute mark.  If I were to think of 2006, one song’s melody would follow  me everywhere I went, and that is “Star Witness,” the rare Case original with an unforgettable chorus that’s repeated three times.  This witness knows more than her compatriots on her record and sings about it beautifully, but here, she’s part of a community, and part of Case.  Case, of Ukranian background, breaks out her native tongue for an intoxicating bridge on “Dirty Knife,” and it’s the same narrative thread, in its way, that snakes its way from John the Baptist in a magnificently vivid interpretation of the traditional “John Saw That Number,” as well as moves into “Lion’s Jaws,” a romantic song of anguish and destruction… if you truly ever “understood” it.  On an NPR report on this record (it gathered quite a bit of attention), the report opened up by saying “In a way, the title of Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood says it all – you don’t totally get it.”

Maybe not totally, but I do think I do get it.  It’s an exploration of Case’s identity, of the tfox confessorhings she believes to be true – that it is difficult to speak the truth, but you must do so anyway.  She takes that identity and shifts perspective on it, because it’s an idea that has never been simple or fully elucidated, but has always been understated.  There are so many beautiful songs on Fox Confessor, and none flag – even the wandering reverie of the title track takes hold in its murky, sea-green hypnotism – but why it’s great is that ultimately, they’re one endless, beautiful, tragic, liberating song.

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