Music reviews are supposed to be about critical analysis, not deferential boot-licking. But Heaven help me, I cannot help it this time. I love Neko Case. Did you hear me? LOVE. L-O-V-E. When a live stream of Middle Cyclone was made available through NPR before the album went on sale (it's since been taken down), I listened to it a dozen times in a row—in one day.
Released almost three years exactly to the date as her 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, the first copy that I’d purchased of Middle Cyclone came with a deep permanent scratch, causing it to skip a third of the way in; three separate re-surfacing attempts did nothing. Rather than go through the rigmarole of an online order return, I just popped in to my favorite indie record store and bought another copy. At the time, it left me with less than $10 in my bank account, but it was a sacrifice I was all too happy to make.
Neko Case is possessed of a pure primal voice, one that she uses to give voice to the natural world and its inhabitants. Case reminds listeners of the folly of forgetting an animal's instincts, to great comic effect, with “People Gotta Lot of Nerve”:
I'm a man man man man man man man eater
But still you're surprised prised prised when I eat ya
You know they call them killer whales
But you seem surprised
When it pinned you down to the bottom of the tank
Where you can't turn around
You can hear an ironic dismay in her voice when she repeats those words in the chorus, almost as though some massive creature is singing through her and shaking its head. Her lilting sarcastic emphasis on the word “killer” is full of dark humor. With its repentant tone and a large chorus repeating its title, Case's cover of “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth,” originally written by Ron Mael (also known as one half of the pop-brother duo Sparks), is less satire and more reverie. She later goes a step further, reminding us all to also remember our own nature with the appropriately titled song “I'm An Animal.”
The microcosm of “Middle Cyclone” is all in spin. Take “This Tornado Loves You,” a song about a tornado in love with a human being. Its love is grandiose, even sociopathic: “Carved your name across three counties/Ground it in with bloody hides/Their broken necks will line the ditch/'Til you stop it, stop it/Stop this madness/I want you.”
While the album title reiterates this tempestuous tone, the title song is more like the eye of a storm—eerily calm, swelling at every turn with poignancy and regret, and leaving the listener to wonder what lay in its wake. It is an absolutely heartbreaking description of how hard it can be to drop a facade and let someone in to that “middle cyclone,” that closely guarded vulnerability: “Can't give up actin' 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.”
Yet even at my most devout, I cannot overlook missteps—and at over thirty-five minutes, it's virtually impossible to overlook a misstep as large as “Marais la nuit” (“Night Swamp”). It's a loop of chirps, tweets, croaks, and other sounds originally recorded at a pond on the land Neko Case recently bought in Vermont. While my inner completist dutifully listened to all of it when I first heard the whole album, and my apologist tries to keep in mind that this is yet another example of Case's affinity for nature, my inner skeptic thinks it sounds like a Nature Sounds CD unnecessarily tacked on to the end of an otherwise complete record.