The conventional wisdom among critics has long been that Neko Case is a singer-songwriter with much more singing than songwriting ability. That partially explains why cultists slaver over Case’s infrequent vocal showcases with the New Pornographers, her power-pop moonlighting project. When removed from the muted, melancholy twang of her own material, Case is the charismatic, soaring voice that elevates the New Pornographers from a male pop-nerd lab experiment into something alchemical. On her own, she’s either haunting or dreary, depending on your disposition. Robert Christgau, the dean of American rock critics, made his position clear in a 2003 New Pornographers review when he openly wished that Case would pull the plug on her “faux-country” solo career.
Fox confessor brings the flood
The good news is that Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Case’s first studio album in nearly four years, marks the point at which her songwriting voice fully coalesces. The sound, an arid expanse of distant brushwork and spare surf-guitar tremelo, is not a radical departure from 2002’s Blacklisted, and Case’s obsessions with mortality and hearbreak remain intact. But the angel is in the details, and the melodicism and poetic twists behind songs such as “Hold On, Hold On” and “The Needle Has Landed” suggest a new-found assurance. The blood and anguish of “Star Witness” or “Dirty Knife” could easily make for grim listening, but Case is fascinated with the beauty behind such tragedies, and she consistently delivers morbid stories with a detached, reportorial tone that only makes them more devastating.
At one point, she concedes “the tenderest place in my heart is for strangers,” and it’s the troubling irony of that revelation that anchors these songs. Case may want to hold out for “that teenage feeling,” but you sense she’s not convinced it really exists.