Generally speaking, an album’s cover isn’t necessarily any kind of indicator in regards to the quality of the album. That said, Neko Case’s album covers are always great—from her murder scene photo on Furnace Room Lullaby, to her road accident on Blacklisted, to her cartoon beheading by foxes on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood—and the music on all of these albums is likewise great. Striking as all these images may be, the picture adorning the cover of Case’s latest, Middle Cyclone, is almost too good to live up to. Rather than playing the unfortunate victim, Case is a sword wielding hood ornament, beckoning her foes to meet her unholy wrath.
Case isn’t about to turn into Ronnie James Dio overnight, however, and the music on Middle Cyclone contains no Brit-metal chug. Nonetheless, it more than lives up to its blade-brandishing cover image, as Cyclone is one of Case’s strongest sets to date, rivaled only by 2002′s Blacklisted as the brightest jewel in the scarlet-maned chanteuse’s crown. Less rooted in country and folk than her previous albums, Middle Cyclone is an impeccably crafted pop album, recalling the likes of the Byrds in the stellar first single “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” while leadoff track “This Tornado Loves You” is like a more elegant and feminine counterpart to collaborator M. Ward.
Transitioning away from the anthropomorphic mythology of Fox Confessor, Middle Cyclone finds Case intertwining animal and nature themes with witty and frequently devastating musings on relationships to make for a unique patchwork of both types of savagery. On “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” Case becomes a darkly humorous black widow of sorts, declaring “I’m a man-man-man eater/ yet you’re sur-prised-prised-prised…when I eat ya.” Her harmonized coo of “I want you” on “This Tornado Loves You” is simultaneously mesmerizing and downright eerie. But on “I’m An Animal,” she matter-of-factly states, “I’m an animal/ you’re an animal too.”
In Case’s shift toward a more elegant style of pop music, she has opened herself up to creating some of her most intriguing sounds to date. The melancholy “Polar Nettles” occupies a new and bravely atmospheric place, while “Vengeance is Sleeping” is one of the most sinister and haunting ballads in her discography, which is saying a lot for a woman with a penchant for penning this decade’s most powerful murder ballads. True to its title, “Fever” is hot, with its dizzying guitars wrapped in bizarre effects that become even creepier as the song reaches its climactic bridge. Meanwhile, “Prison Girls” is a slinky epic, and “Red Tide,” one of the album’s best, actually rocks in its smoky, reverb-laden way.
In addition to the 12 originals, Case also covers Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me,” each in her entirely unique way. The former finds her taking on the track in a stately jangle pop manner, while the latter is performed with an orchestra of second hand pianos. Like any of her previous cover versions (notably Sarah Vaughn’s “Look For Me (I’ll Be Around)”), Case makes them entirely her own. Of course, what’s uniquely Case on Middle Cyclone has changed considerably. This is an exquisite pop album, polished and beautiful. But underneath the Rickenbacker jangle and chamber pop flourishes lies the darkness and wit of the troubadour responsible for some of the best Americana released in this decade.