In 2006, I was floating back and fourth between Boston and San Diego. During one of these travels, I squinted at a mute television, several aisles down, in an American Airlines airbus: The in-flight entertainment came in the form of a silent, teeth-baring roar from a badly rendered CGI animal in “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”. Meanwhile, in my headphones, Neko Case’s lithe intonations rang out in a peacefully downtrodden chorus.
A month earlier, I had peeled a CD sleeve open inside an issue of Paste Magazine. This particular sampler disc contained a playlist made, presumably, by the half-interested and aloof editor of the then print publication. From what I remember, artists such as Jolie Holland, Matt Costa, and Neko Case were superimposed on this “free” insert (supplemental additions, such as CDs, were commonplace in higher-end music quarterlies in the aughts – but they were rarely good). Usually the highlighted musicians didn’t appeal to me: Innocuous folk, copy-and-paste rock, and watered down artists that sounded eerily similar to The Decemberists. This time, though, the paint-by-numbers sampler was dotted by something intangibly special. Neko Case’s sullen vibrato, softly violent and aching, filled my speakers and I became swept out to some unmapped sea.
I began to mine, deeper, when I returned home. In an insatiable fit of curiosity and emotional fulfillment, I ravenously downloaded everything from her catalog. From the country elocution of “Virginian” to the powerfully morose and self-masticating “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood”, here was an artist that presented glib humor, loose rocks and palpable pain with the imagery of a screenwriter. I began sitting in my room and listening to each of her albums in succession, letting the candid, ethereal, and spooky narratives work themselves into an uncontrolled fire. Neko had become a flint to igniting personal awareness: I found that terror and madness could also be self-discovery. Eventually I drove to Tower Records in Point Loma and purchased “The Tigers Have Spoken” on CD (the pinnacle of physical mediums to a twenty-one-year-old in 2006). And then, several months later, I walked into Record City and bought her album “Blacklisted” on vinyl. On the album’s cover, the artist laid, somewhat contorted and yet confident, on the belly of some forgotten street. In the background a loaded van awaited some darkened voyage. Seattle, said the license plate. In the creme brulee sky a plane is seen in mid-flight. Forever stationary.
2002’s “Blacklisted” was Neko Case’s third album. Having had recently relocated from Seattle, Washington to Tucson, Arizona, Case eschewed the sticky, country stylings of her previous album, 2000’s “Furnace Room Lullaby”, and dug into the marrow of sinister alt-folk. The instrumentation drew long shadows. Case’s vocals climbed, powerfully, to meet the richly textured lyrics. The bleak tone is set, almost immediately, when Neko describes nature as foreshadowing in the album’s opening track, “Things That Scare Me”. The rust, tar, and telephone wires speak to finite happiness. “I’m a dying breed who still believes,” she sings under a bruised moon. “Haunted by American dreams.” By the time “Deep Red Bells” uncoils, moments later, you realize that caked mud and repressed demons will be present for the entirety of the album. On the aforementioned track, she sings, fearful and tortured, about her days circumventing the Green River Killer as a child. She describes souls on the interstate. Engine oil. Popsicles in summer.
“Blacklisted” is beautiful, scary, and forever immediate. It’s a breadth of human emotion that speaks on tall grass, discarded memories, rattling keychains, and cold bones. In 2002, this was a jolt of confessional abandonment. Unafraid to be terrified and yet strong. Unafraid to tell stories of love, death, and dirt. Neko Case changed me forever in 2006, as a twenty-one-year-old who didn’t quite understand what life was. It gave me a smudged compass. It told me that, even though the world is terrifying, you can still be strong and acknowledge the dichotomy of nature and humanity. That you can wear warpaint and face the right direction, even if it’s burning with uncertainty.