Release date: August 20, 2002
On her third album, Blacklisted, Neko Case finally invents herself. Her last album, Furnace Room Lullaby, was a straight torch-and-twang affair, attracting all the obvious (and warranted) k.d. lang comparisons that come with that. Her vocal work on The New Pornographers self-titled debut showed us another Neko Case entirely – the voice that had so recently been weighed down with thick drawl and forced yodeling now rang clear, pinning together fierce pop-rock songs. Now on Blacklisted, she divides herself (and maybe her audience) yet again, casting off almost all of the country theatrics that made her a name only two years ago. She has relaxed for this album, keeping things a bit on the country side, but determined not to lay it on too thick this time; and in doing so, she has found a completely new and distinctive style. This is, of course, the ultimate goal for a singer-songwriter. She’s reached it. This is an excellent album.
Blacklisted is, above all else, a triumph of delicate, late-night moodiness. Case has a long, dark highway in the back of her mind, and even while the songs are usually short and occasionally incomplete (the album packs 14 tracks into 38 minutes), the expansive production together with the evocative not-quite-country instrumentation of Calexico and other friends blows the sound up to occupy a huge amount of empty and lonely space. The ensemble playing only serves to accentuate the alone-ness at the center of the music, which is a neat trick – even with talent as large as Howe Gelb on board, everything points toward Neko herself, and her lyrical sensibilities, spare and solid and introspective.
For newcomers to Case, of which this album will surely breed many, her most immediately striking talent isn’t her voice, clean and sharp as it is. It’s the lyrics. Nothing on either of her last two records even hinted at the poetry she had in her — a dense, frighteningly evocative matte of dark words, sung plainly enough to be startling. Gone are songs about Wal-Mart, replaced with lyrics like “it looks a lot like engine oil / and tastes like being poor and small / and Popsicles in summer.” (On second thought, that could be about Wal-Mart after all, or a score of other things.) On “Outro with Bees,” she sings, “red wine is fast / at the lip of your glass / saying ‘I’m gonna ruin everything.’” She’s sticking to a country-western iconography here – drinking, driving, etc. – but in execution, she’s creating something quite apart from mere country. Where many a singer-songwriter would be content to let the obvious speak for itself, Case keeps you leaning into the speaker for more meaning, and more words.
Her voice, while being more direct than on any of her previous work, is evocative of many other voices. Many of the tracks have definite Alison Krauss overtones. On “Tightly,” she sounds strikingly like Bettie Serveert’s Carol van Dijk. And although she doesn’t reach for it, it’s easy to imagine “Deep Red Bells” coming from the throat of Kristin Hersh. But rather than give the impression of being unfocused or cluttered, this style shifting actually helps to focus the album by letting the natural mood of a piece dictate its delivery. Whereas on Furnace her voice constantly strained to make everything as country-fried as possible, here it serves many different purposes — the purposes of individual songs. When a style fits a song, she uses it, displaying at once an ultimate respect for the music and a devout desire not to be pigeonholed as anything, least of all k.d. lang.
And I hear another, much less obvious influence in the music as well. Case spent a good deal of time in Vancouver, studying art and joining the punk band Maow, and I find it difficult to imagine after hearing Blacklisted that she wasn’t during that time influenced by the sound of fellow Vancouver resident Veda Hille. Much of Blacklisted takes the same kind of chances that Hille takes, in terms of unconventional song structure and fractured, hallucinatory lyrics, even while adhering to tunefulness. Case seems to find on Blacklisted a middle ground between her last album and Hille’s carefully skewed (if not downright bizarre) pop ideas.
It’s a daring gambit of a record, really, not as country as many will be comfortable with, and certainly not as verse-chorus-verse as most music that uses banjo and pedal steel. It steps back from the near-formula of her former music, gives the whole thing some thought, and attacks it from an entirely different direction. That’s a brave thing to do, and it pays off in spades.