On Hell-On, her seventh full-length, Neko Case offers up another serving of the irreverent and bittersweet folk rock that has defined her career. As expansive as it is exuberant, Hell-On imbues tales of loneliness, passion, and despair with a healthy dose of hilarity, resulting in songs that are both immediately recognizable as her own, and also mirror the complex world we all inhabit.
Hell-On is clearly Case’s vision—she handled the album’s production, as well—but she’s enlisted a murderer’s row of collaborators to help her realize it: k.d. lang, Laura Veirs, A.C. Newman, and Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan all make appearances. Yet instead of coming across as scattershot or overly busy, the collective effort gives Hell-On the feel of a zany, extended family vacation; even when she’s digging into the depths of her own misery—as on the album’s sprawling centerpiece, “Curse of the I-5 Corridor”—Case and company can’t help but saturate these songs with sunny arrangements that belie the lyrics’ harsh realities. “Halls of Sarah” describes a wounded and absent companion, but does so over a honeyed guitar figure and the sort of magnetic melody Case favored with frequent collaborators the New Pornographers; later, “Bad Luck” boasts a radiant chorus that’s deliberately at odds with its dour sentiment.
That balance of playfulness and tragedy has run consistently through Case’s work, but on Hell-On she has sharpened her wit to a dagger’s edge. On the title track, God appears as a “lusty tire fire”: “I cried so hard I pissed myself,” she sings over a glam-y groove on “My Uncle’s Navy.” The line “I fucked every man that I wanted to be,” from “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” is as multilayered as it is acerbic. Perhaps some of this saltiness can be credited to Case’s recent run-in with tragedy; as has already become something of lore, her Vermont home burned down during the album’s completion. But frankly, it may have more to do with her singular ability to examine her own complexity with an unflinching and imaginative gaze. On Hell-On, Neko Case lets her truest self shine.