Neko Case playfully resists against metaphor on her sixth studio album, “Middle Cyclone.” Case puts the listener against various forces throughout the album: nature and nurture. “Middle Cyclone” is one of the best albums of the year, and in the process, Case records some of the strongest songs in her 15-year career. Case, who also records with The New Pornographers, wrote every song on the album (with the exception of two songs, including her fantastic cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me”).
The album begins beautifully with “This Tornado Loves You,” an atypical “love song” that resists convention by exploring love metaphorically through a tornado. The quiet strumming of the acoustic guitars and cello sets the tone for the sweeping nature of a tornado, a funnel of blustery weather in pursuit of its love. Once the tornado meets its love, everything is vaporized. The tornado leaves “their souls dangling inside-out from their mouths.” Unrequited love fuels the tornado’s chase in its journey (“your rails have always outrun mine”) and tries escaping love’s entrapment. In the meantime, the tornado cries out: “what will you make you believe me?”
After Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me,” Case also covers Sparks, “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” which is in agreement with the quiet sensibility of nature. Case sees nature as untamable yet gorgeous at the same time. Case’s voice is strong and full of conviction.
The dexterity and tenderness of Case’s vocals are evident on the album through “Vengeance is Sleeping” and “Middle Cyclone.” “Middle Cyclone” simply consists of Case’s voice and a guitar and music box played by band mate Paul Rigby.
“Fever” is a soul-wrenching tune exposing the haunting layers of Case’s voice and just how dark her lyrics can go. The clinging-clanging mix of acoustic and Hawaiian guitars along with the bass and drums produce a marching beat, perhaps toward death and questions whether we are all prisoners of our inevitable destination. Death shows hunger and lust to spiders. Case ponders the escape of death by hiding out with ants (“marching ants across my temple/they followed some magnetic drum”). Her voice cuts like a knife as death arrives (“I caught his words in my open mouth/I gagged and choked and spit them out/I heard him turn as he did hear/my tiny heart beat in his ear/I was already running/oh, I heard him coming”).
Death is one theme on the record it shows up on “Magpie To The Morning.” This song can be interpreted about the re-emergence from a depression at the end of a relationship (“run an airtight mission, a Cousteau expedition/find a diamond at the bottom of the drain”). Through “Magpie To The Morning,” Case reminds the listener that it is not worth reviving a romance that is dead and gone.
Case puts men to task in “The Pharaohs” and her expectations are higher than what seem realistically feasible. She hungers for more (“my body burned/my legs ached/but you never came to bed/you just left me there awake/you kept me wanting, wanting, wanting/like the wanting in the movies and the hymns”) and pleads that she “wants the pharaohs/but there’s only men.”
The quiet sounds of nature are presented on the last track of the album, “Marais La Nuit,” which is 31 minutes of spring peepers chirping in the woods.
Case’s alternative country sound soothes and her meaningful lyrics are at times scary and intense, but poignant and rich as she presents topics not typically explored by her peers. Her discovery of nature is surprising at first because it is so unusual for any artist to write about, but she writes what she knows and feels. Case brilliantly uses nature metaphorically and literally throughout the album in relation to common themes of love, heartbreak and death.