Neko Case w/ Shannon Shaw
Englert Theatre — Monday, April 29 at 8 p.m.
For the first time in over a decade, Neko Case will perform at the Englert on April 29, in support of her new album Hell-On, with Shannon Shaw (of Shannon and the Clams) opening at 8 p.m. Tickets are $42.50.
Case has been performing music since she began drumming for a variety of local punk bands in 1994 Vancouver. She left Canada for Seattle in 1998, leaving behind some vocals for a side project called the New Pornographers. She began her career in 1997 as Neko Case & Her Boyfriends — a blend of noir country covers and originals. 2002 saw Blacklisted, followed by two live albums and then the first album of her mature career: 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, which appeared on numerous “best of” lists at the end of that year and arguably remains one of the best albums of the decade.
Hell-On, Case’s seventh solo album, provides an insightful, beautiful understanding of how to remain humane despite the almost continual wave of tragedies relentlessly paraded on news tickers — school shootings, misogyny, floods, hurricanes, overdose deaths.
Misfortune affected Case personally during the making of the album; ironically, she sang the vocal track for the jubilant “Bad Luck” in Sweden the day after her house in Vermont burned, destroying everything. In a recent conversation, Case contextualized the event in terms of a more global perspective, including both natural disasters and national politics.
“There’s so much tragedy and loss going on. [The album] was being made during a horrible time, and it’s still a horrible time,” Case said. “Compared to most people, I haven’t lost anything. I lost my house, but nobody died. It was a bunch of stuff, in the end.”
One thing that distinguishes Case from other artists — and humans — is her openness to complexity. She sifts through the debris of tragedy without ignoring it, finding gems that would otherwise be tossed away.
“Being reminded that we’re nothing in the face of what nature does is comforting,” she said, “even though it is brutal. The house was still standing, but it [became] a super toxic piece of artwork — it was melted into a weird shape, something people made but scorched and melted and bizarre … I took a lot of photos and it ended up being a lot of the artwork [for the album] … I thought it’d be a nice quiet solidarity with those who lost everything and worse.”
Case has a distinctive voice — not just in the timbre and tonalities of her sung words, which are instantly recognizable, but also in the way her voice is anchored in a self-awareness that contextualizes her subjective feelings within larger frameworks. She’s quite personable on the phone, lacking both the false humility that would trivialize and cheapen her genius and any sense of a bloated ego.
Her voice, in other words, emerges out from a singular perspective on what it means to be human — one that allows her to speak for others while speaking for herself, one that allows her to become a thoughtful spokesperson for what it means to reside on this planet, now.
If there is a political edge to Case’s work, it is one that strikes at the core of injustice rather than a protest against its symptoms. She describes Hell-On as “a reaction to straight colonial white male aggression.” And she decries “a whole Reagan-era business school thing that makes life a weird game [of taking things].” Her rejection of the dominant assumption of how to be human can be seen throughout her career — even in the title Fox Confessor Brings the Floodf, which invokes nature, animals, guilt, tragedy and causality in a beautifully beguiling metaphor.
Her response to colonialist appropriation is explicit but also a devout practice.
“There’s nothing about taking things or getting things or stealing from others that gives me any joy,” Case said. And she rejects the rock mythology that restricts the amount of success available. This ethic is clearly seen in her frequent collaborations, which highlight the voices of those she works with. In part, this is based on her personal experiences as a touring musician; Case celebrates “a blue-collar level to music that nobody talks about that’s really fun.”
But, broadly speaking, it’s seen in the way Case lives out a kind of expansive, generous humanism that makes her artwork something that feels vast. The core of her art is expansive and inclusive, while remaining anchored within her own subjective experiences.
Beyond her musical prowess, you can feel the power of Case’s inclusive humanism at the level of her song construction. Her songs are gems that initiate a point of view in a compacted form that leave an impression and induce listeners to a sense of awe about the world. Case compares her work to movie trailers — “the highlights and the excitement” — and also to fairy tales, another short and magical genre.
Stories are important for Case as a model for audience reception. In our brief exchange, Case twice pointed to her songcraft as requiring “entrances and exits” that let people “get it, make it theirs, and leave.” This background assumption impressed me as inherently and proactively resistant to the ideals of domination at the heart of capitalist America — a generous, generative and beautiful alternative to the everyday world.
Case’s ability to view life in this way, and part of what drives both her collaborative career and her active, inspired Twitter feed, is steeped in her humility.
“Musicians know, if they’re in it for music and art — not for being famous — that serving the song is the best thing you can do,” she said. “You have to be flexible. In order to be flexible, you have to learn stuff, which means you have to cede your control to other people.”
Her song structures invite this way of thinking differently, with metaphors that are not only melodically beautiful and resonant but that also invite (or perhaps even require) listeners to take a slightly different point of view — for example, describing how poets love “womankind / As lions love Christians.” It is succinct, apt, embodied, evocative, clever, generative — and largely borne out in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Beyond her unmistakable talent, Case’s passion for music emerges from her understanding of how music connects humans with their innate potential, their greatest capabilities.
“You know how you can watch a cheetah on a nature show and it runs 60 miles per hour, and it is incredible? The thing humans can do is sing. Even if a person cannot hold a note or a tune, in a group with others it is an incredible sound. If you’re in the room, you can feel the vibration … That’s our oldest, most beautiful superpower.”
Daniel Boscaljon is a public intellectual and experimental humanist whose new project, “The Thoughtful Life,” is now available. You can listen to his 10-part meditative workshop, ‘Making Space for Yourself,’ and catch up on the first “Going Home” installment of Coffee with Dan at danielboscaljon.com. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 262.