Infinite Play: Neko Case, “This Tornado Loves You”

Written by Infinite Play

Is a tornado capable of looking for love in all the wrong places? Dave Lifton finds out when he analyzes his favorite song of 2009, Neko Case’s “This Tornado Loves You” in his latest Infinite Play column.

Here at Popdose we’re deep in the bowels (and I mean that literally) of Mellowmas. Thankfully, it only takes one gem to wipe away the nightmares induced by everything Jason and Jeff have forced on us (and, to be fair, themselves) this season. That’s where I come in.

For my final column of the year, I figured I should write about my favorite song of 2009. “Waving Flag” by K’Naan made a few serious challenges at the title, when I first heard it when NPR released his show at South By Southwest as a podcast and again last month when it came up on Shuffle Play. I defy anybody to listen to it and not feel uplifted by its message of hope and positivity amid destruction.

It fell just short, but it was recently named as the official anthem of the 2010 World Cup, so I don’t think K’Naan is too disappointed by finishing second on my list. It’s a far better choice than when UEFA had “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes blaring out of every stadium during Euro 2008, even if it doesn’t work as well as a terrace anthem.

But my Song Of The Year award goes to “This Tornado Loves You” by Neko Case, whom I recently named as Artist Of The Decade on my own blog. In the end, it was, as with everything Case touches, the voice that did it for me.  I’ve listened to this song more than any other this year, with settings ranging from my bedroom with the lights out to crowded bars and Case’s vocals never cease to cut through whatever setting I’m in. To be fair, my local doesn’t have “Waving Flag” on its jukebox, but it does have Middle Cyclone, the album from which “This Tornado Loves You” is taken.

It took a few listens for me to get into the song. I felt that its premise, the notion that a storm is a living entity with the needs as animals, was too confusing to grasp. And while I still don’t buy it, Case sells the concept by inhabiting the character beautifully. She describes the destruction she is causing in search of her estranged love.

I have waited with a glacier’s patience
Smashed every transformer with every trailer
‘Til nothing was standing
Sixty-five miles wide
Still you are nowhere, still you are nowhere
Nowhere in sight
Come out to meet me, come out to meet me
Come into the light

That’s how Case makes the convincing argument. She realizes that the storm can only express its emotions by destroying everything it touches, (probably why her lover left), and the result is heartbreaking. It reminds me of the scene in Edward Scissorhands where Winona Ryder asks Johnny Depp to hold her, only to have him show his grotesque hands and reply, “I can’t.”

But it’s not just the lyrics that sell the song. Throughout the decade, Case has grown as a songwriter because she has a wonderful understanding of song structure but isn’t restricted by it. On “This Tornado Loves You,” she opens with a melody that doesn’t re-appear until shortly before the coda, there’s no chorus, and the bridge, at 37 seconds, is longer than the verse (21 seconds). But it sounds perfectly natural, in part because Paul Rigby’s insistent staccato electric guitar grounds the song while symbolizing the tornado’s menace throughout the song.

There are other wonderful little touches that never fail to move me, like Kelly Hogan’s background vocals, the “I miss” section in the bridge, and the way the drums pick up at 2:14, when the opening section is repeated.

Case has said in interviews that the tornado is not meant to be seen as a metaphor for herself, but there’s no way that she could have written this without understanding its narrator. After all, a traveling rock band is, in essence, a force that briefly blows through town, and changes the lives of those it affects, all in search of the love of the audience. And her cries of “What will make you believe me” as the song’s title is repeated at the end – desperate the first time, dangerously seductive the second – can rip your heart out.