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Neko Case's 'Hell-On' Conjures A Constellation Of Emotions

Neko Case's <em>Hell-On</em> comes out June 1.
Emily Shur
/
Courtesy of the artist
Neko Case's Hell-On comes out June 1.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.


There are billions of voices in the world, so it's a stretch to call any one of them "peerless." But through seven albums — not to mention a huge catalog of guest appearances, a record with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, and a long-running gig in The New Pornographers Neko Case has reached a point where her voice conjures a constellation of mixed emotions on its own. Before her words and meanings can be parsed, the sound alone has become shorthand: You feel mystery, hurt and want in every weary, soaring note.

Case's first solo album in five years, Hell-On, takes that voice to strange and alluring places, aided by roomfuls of her favorite collaborators: lang and Veirs, bandmates Kelly Hogan and Eric Bachmann, The New Pornographers' A.C. Newman, Gossip's Beth Ditto and many others. Outside voices take a more prominent role than usual, as Mark Lanegan crops up throughout the worn-down seven-minute stunner "Curse of the I-5 Corridor," while she and Bachmann convert one of his own best songs (Crooked Fingers' "Sleep All Summer," from 2005) into a slow and searching duet.

But in countless ways, the self-produced Hell-On simply encapsulates Case's own singular vision. A quarter-century into her career, her words still feel intensely personal and utterly oblique, as if she's whispering her darkest secrets in Sanskrit. But she also remains endlessly quotable (ex: "God is a lusty tire fire") even at her most elusive, in songs that unfold like puzzles she's still solving herself.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)