While some musicians progress in leaps, Neko Case tends to move in increments. But she does move. Case’s albums have remained consistently strong over the years, even as she’s stepped away from her traditionalist alt-country roots and towards more idiosyncratic twangy pop. Her latest, Middle Cyclone, is in the same exploratory mode as 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, as Case tries to discover what she can eke out of just a little shimmer, some elliptical lyrics, and her big, yelping voice. Middle Cyclone doesn’t sound substantially different from the album than what preceded it, yet it’s far removed from her 1997 debut, The Virginian.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine what the Case of 12 years ago would make of Middle Cyclone’s opener, “This Tornado Loves You,” which rushes along like a gust of wind that keeps changing direction. The song is about being tossed about by forces you can’t understand—but that understand you—and in a way, it’s a metaphor for how Case works these days. She’s more intuitive and less genre-bound.
Because of that intuitive approach, Middle Cyclone is more fragmented than Fox Confessor. The album takes its lead from the off-the-cuff methodology of Harry Nilsson, whose yearning, smart-ass ballad “Don’t Forget Me” Case covers beautifully here. Case feels untethered enough to close the record with 30 minutes of chirping crickets, and to defend the predatory nature of killer whales, and to perform a straight-faced version of Sparks’ the-ecology-can-ruin-you anthem “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth.” All of Middle Cyclone is reliably Case-like, in that it seems unpredictable, unless you’ve listened to Case long enough to understand what she understands: that following fleeting impulses can be as rewarding as it is dangerous.