neko case is badassOn her latest release, fiery-haired singer-songwriter Neko Case lightens the tone, musically, while trekking into deeper territory, emotionally. With Middle Cyclone, Case, who’s developed something of a reputation for avoiding love songs, has created an album stockpiled with them – but there are those caustic break-up odes, too.

She claims the perky opener, “This Tornado Loves You” is based on a dream she had about a tornado who falls in love with a boy, but a tornado is an all too fitting metaphor for someone as tenacious as Case, challenging the object of its affection to “Come out to meet me / run out to meet me / come into the light.” Despite the tornado’s destructive ways, it insists, “This tornado loves you / this tornado loves you,” before demanding to know, “What will make you believe me?”

Neko Case, “This Tornado Loves You” (download)

Then there’s the bold, heavy-hitting, “I’m An Animal,” which celebrates a tendency towards instinct. “There are things I’m still so afraid of / but my courage is roaring like the sound of the sun,” she boasts, encouraging her equally wild lover, “I’m an animal / you’re an animal, too.”

But Case’s tenacity doesn’t stop with positive feelings – she confronts the disappointing just as easily. In the almost painfully short under two-minute track, “The Next Time You Say Forever,” she slips and slides from the music box effects of the “tiniest sparks and the tenderest sounds” to bass and string-laden threats, “The next time you say forever / I will punch you in your face.” Later, she addresses the let down of a young romance in “The Pharaohs,” with the repeated line, “I want the pharaohs / but there’s only men.”

Case isn’t always be direct, though she connects the dots for us, stringing themes of animalia, weather and the play between strength and fear throughout. But there are a few curveballs, like the strange and obtuse “Polar Nettles” and “Red Tide.”

Still, it’s surprisingly love that dominates, even if it’s in a downtrodden context. The title track is easily the album’s most emotionally poignant, connecting perfectly to the badass album cover when Case laments, “I can’t give up acting tough / it’s all that I’m made of / Can’t scrape together quite enough / to ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love.”As in “The Next Time You Say Forever,” music box effects appear here, too, provoking the thought that perhaps, in her effort to project strength, Case wants to lighten the album’s heartbreak emotions, or maybe just finds them childish.

Neko Case, “Middle Cyclone” (download)

Case has honed her writing skills over recent years, bringing together aspects of Blacklisted and Fox Confessor Brings The Flood on Middle Cyclone, a culmination of her ambitions as of late. Where she falters, surprisingly, is on the two cover tracks – “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” and “Don’t Forget Me” – either of which might have found a home on one of Case’s more distant albums, but feel strangely apathetic among the flurry of emotions on this one. More proof, perhaps, that when it comes to her craft, it’s best to play it from the chest.

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