Neko Case

Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

(Anti-; 2006)

By Scott Reid | 27 March 2006

I’ve been holding out, waiting patiently for weeks, hoping somebody else would do this first.

I assured myself: Neko’s made this incredible new record, as cavernous an analytical pit as Destroyer’s Rubies. Surely someone’s going to just dive into this thing, be a pedantic ass, probably even invent a drinking game exclusively for whiskey sours or mint juleps, at least put some effort into making sense of the damn thing. Think about it: Neko spent the better part of three years carefully constructing and condensing this record, obviously she wants us to reciprocate that effort and “fill in the blanks,” right? To tackle the entire puzzle instead of just listing its top five high points and bouncing them off an invented low or two?

You’d think so. But then, despite producing her most meticulously layered record to date, dangling county-fair carrots for critics to flap their gums at, she still has her material belittled with comments like “Everything on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is sublimated beneath Case’s vocals: music, momentum, the need for tunes“ (Stylus) and “You’d never guess she wasn’t covering Patsy Cline standards“ (Rolling Stone). Imagine how frustrating that must be: you spend years simplifying your songwriting so it’s easier for your audience to step into, and major music publications like Rolling Stone still can’t be bothered, only willing to skim your record’s stratospheric top layer and slop a rating on that.

Now, I’m not trying to say Neko Case gives a damn about the odd critic’s first impressions, but it is arguable that this record is partially reactionary in nature, a conscious move away from being labeled a big, empty voice writing shallow songs. It’s probably why she chose to write/co-write every song here, for the first time breaking her tradition of including several (or, as with Canadian Amp and The Tigers Have Spoken, nearly all) covers, and why she took larger, more perfectionist roles in co-producing and mixing the record. It’s a refocus that affects every level of her songwriting—from vocal restraint (she really only goes all out a la “Deep Red Bells” on a handful of occasions, each of them explicitly meant to compliment the songs and their characters) and song structure (big empty voice: “I want to say what I have to say and then get out“) to the basis of lyrics (natch: “I wanted to try and figure out how fairy tales were born“).

With Fox Confessor, Case has made a conscious attempt to let her words lead each of these songs—not her voice, or the century’s worth of American popular music she taps to bring these gothic fairy tales to life, or the huge cast of collaborators who make that possible. Of course they’re all part of why I think this stands as one of her best records yet. But focus too much on just the music and it’s easy to overlook its decidedly subordinate role here. It’s not that Case’s songwriting has grown lazy and these songs are short because she couldn’t be bothered to finish them; they’re short because she’s opting for brevity to stress an all-powerful message that’s determinative of everything: atmosphere, pace, intensity, tone, cover art, hair style. The subtle refocus means a different kind of record, not just a shorter and slower retread of her last three, and certainly not a collection of lazy Patsy Cline covers. It deserves a hell of a lot more credit than that.

*****

He sang nursery rhymes to paralyze the wolves that eddy out the corner of his eyes

Fox Confessor‘s title is taken from Ukrainian mythology—the fable of the (cunning, ruthless) fox and the (naive, defeated) wolf. Circumstances vary with each telling, but the message is practically the same: the fox, thirsting for the wolf’s need for absolution, cons its way into assuming the role of the trusted confessor, then promptly uses that relationship to abandon/seduce/kill/eat/generally fuck over its unsuspecting prey. In one telling, the fox fools the wolf into believing it can control the ocean’s tides. The trusting wolf, naive enough to believe the fox has the power to control nature, heads into the swelling ocean, only to wash up on shore a pathetic stiff/delicious meal moments later.

So, to grossly oversimplify some really harsh but "darkly funny" (according to Neko) animal mythology, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” = the person/wild animal/concept/higher power that you put your faith in fools you, so not only are your sins not absolved, there’s this big shit-flood that’s gonna wreck you and leave you either abandoned and begging for sweet reprieve or corpsed up on your predator’s doorstep like the old guy who married Anna Nicole Smith. And the moral to all of this? Reason #202 Neko Case loves this shit so much: unless you consider “it’s not really your fault, but something’s going to eat you up” a moral, it doesn’t have one.

Fox Confessor‘s title track, sequenced right in the middle of the record, locks horns with that mythology, directly integrating its imagery and tone into her own characters. Here, she (the fictional “she,” not Neko) drives by “beautiful” flooded fields in the first verse and floods her own sleeves (finally realizing she has nothing to “hold [her] faith in,” she breaks down) in the last. Both scenes bookend a confrontation with the fox confessor, who she follows, guilt-riden, in retreat. But in retreat from what? The flooded fields? Well, no—in those she finds “beauty,” as any good gothic protagonist would. It’s the flooded sleeves, the emotional manifestation of her “orphan blues,” that leaves her so vulnerable and defeated. So, when the fox confessor tells her that it’s not her fault and understands her frustration (“It’s not for you to know / But for you to weep and wonder / When the death of your civilization precedes you”), of course she’s going to follow him, accepting that wherever it leads her will be a step up from what she’s going through. She ultimately gives in because she’s burdened with a monumental sense of loss: of faith, self-respect, options, love, power, hope, sanity, all that good shit. She’s inundated by an overwhelming lack of control and direction, left a pessimistic emotional wreck that’d rather accept a foolishly romanticized concept of death than deal with her own demons.

The same basic theme is expanded with Julie Morstad’s art for the album. The cover depicts a surreal combination of fable and subject: a black-haired girl with the cloven feet—a suggestion that she’s actually half goat, aka "the devil’s sheep" according to more fucked up Ukrainian “proverbs”—cradles “ target=“new”>more severed heads. It gives the impression that she has some sort of ownership of death (the heads are hers, after all), an impossibility that just sets a defeating cycle in motion: that false ownership both temporarily distracts (she has to run out of heads sometime, then the foxes get her) and lures the fox, trapping the girl in frustration and guilt.

In the album’s liner notes, the same girl kneels before an open grate in the wall while an endless stash of even more severed heads floats out, moving towards the ceiling, in single file. She can only cower when confronted by so much death, overwhelmed by their relentless flow. The scene illustrates opener “Margaret vs. Pauline,” which centers itself around Margaret’s consuming jealousy with the seemingly perfect, "cool side of satin" Pauline. Romanticizing Pauline (“fate holds her firm in its cradle and then rolls her for a tender pause to savour”) as a freedom from everyday burdens, Margaret feels stranded and without her own escape, caught in—as Case wistfully repeats at the end of “Lion’s Jaws”—“momentum for the sake of momentum.” Like the goatgirl on the cover or the title track’s emotional wreck, Margaret is crushed by her lack of faith and direction—another sitting duck unable to accept, or find a way out of, her situation.

It’s not hard to relate “Margaret” to Fox Confessor’s title track, or even the chilling, nearly a cappella “A Widow’s Toast.” You can be as optimistic as you want (“better days are coming still”), and try to get a grasp on truth and death and all things over which you have no power, but it all still ultimately controls you—and that the only power you do have lies in how you want to approach its inevitability. Either you just accept that there’s nothing you can do about it and live your imperfect life anyway, or idolize the confessors that offer an answer or a deceitful way to cope. For some, that means turning to a ruthless fox. For others, that means turning to religion.

*****
Hey, Speaking of Guilt and Sin: Fox Confessor and Religion

On “Hold On, Hold On,” Case’s best new song with long-time collaborators the Sadies, her character finds comfort in her own form of confessor. She exclaims that she’s “now”—as in not before, but after always ending up a powerless “in-between girl,” options are growing slim—in love with the devil, and that it’s “as real as true love.” Like with the title track’s protagonist, she isn’t oblivious to her faults, just unable to overcome them, trusting anybody except herself and ultimately siding with a confessor she feels understands and accepts her. She sees herself as her biggest threat (she confesses: “my own blood is much too dangerous,” also a hint at the valium she’s slipped at the bridal party), so she’s that extra bit vulnerable to a confessor that’s looking to take advantage of that “most tender place” in her heart for strangers.

The half traditional-gospel-lyric/half Case-original “John Saw That Number” superimposes the mythology atop the other extreme of Christianity. Its subject, John the Baptist, rejects the devil (“on his horns write ‘blasphemy’ / John couldn’t read it”), thereby doing the opposite of “Hold On”‘s in-between girl, and accepts the Lord in his own need for salvation. But Case equally questions the “divine” side of Christianity’s ability to truly absolve, likening it to rest of the album’s misleading confessors (Case in last month’s Spin: “Don’t give me Christianity, I need something real”). The lyrics are borrowed, so she relies on sequencing to carry the message; placing the song’s exaggerated levity amongst so much despair, Case aligns Christianity with these other mythologies as a way to cognitively frame, or somehow avoid, inevitabilities like death—a detour around dealing with their reality.

*****

You’ll never pass beyond the gate if you don’t hear my warning

It’s clear, though, through all of that bleak pessimism, that Case is too empathetic a narrator to fault her characters’ collective inability to avoid, or even accept, what preys on them. Her role as a narrator here is to retain the unforgiving harsh tone of the mythology but also inhabit the characters she places in such awfully bleak confines, Malkovich-style, channeling, as their (literal) voice, the kind of frustration and restlessness she spends so much time describing in her lyrics. You can notice the kind of inseparable marriage of music and message that I argued earlier in the way she stresses and/or repeats certain lines: “please don’t let him die” in “Star Witness,” “everything’s so easy for Pauline,” the pleading “cause it’s hard” that closes “That Teenage Feeling,” even the Ukrainian vocal coda that spirals out of “Dirty Knife.”

Actually, “Dirty Knife” is the perfect example here. Joey Burns’ cello and Paul Rigby’s subtle acoustic guitar follow the lyric’s shift from early signs of madness (the song documents an anonymous family in Washington, Case’s home state, and how its members each quickly and mysteriously go insane by drinking tainted water—hence “the blood runs crazy with giant strides”) to dramatic paranoia and powerlessness. Neko’s voice follows that arc as well, of course. When she describes the Dali-esque melting of reality in the second verse, her voice picks up momentum, and the Ukrainian bridge is the climax of that surrealistic build—her vocals almost like an archaic elegy for the foolishly-insane family being dragged off by “wolves” they’re unable to defend against.

With “Maybe Sparrow” (likely a nod to Dolly Parton’s recent “Little Sparrow,” another fable-like confrontation of the constant, defeating pull of sadness), Case herself gets overwhelmed by the lack of resolve in her characters, and makes repeated attempts to change the sparrow’s fate. The song’s title hints at both possibility (Neko, as narrator: maybe I can save this one, I’ve had shit luck with the rest) and desperation (if not, maybe that means no one’s even listening), a shift that that the music follows. Over the somber first verse, Case tries to warn the unknowing sparrow about a lurking hawk, but ultimately loses out; the sparrow “cannot hear [the] words” or her last ditch wordless attempt to connect in song, and dies. With Garth Hudson’s organ solo leading the way, the song turns abrasive and despondent in the sparrow’s wake; Case’s voice gains momentum and, unable to connect to her subject, rasps with unmistakable frustration by the song’s end.

Since she admits that it’s “too late” to save the sparrow, in the last half of the song she turns her attention to a human subject instead: an airplane that
“hums a sparrow’s phrase.” The connection between fable and subject is again made much clearer with Morstad’s liner illustration (and the not-so-subtle video). We see the same black-haired girl, this time wearing a giant bird suit that unmistakably links her to the poor, helpless sparrow (and, by extension, the people aboard its own creature of “metal wings”). And, we have to assume, it also links them to the same fate, if they’re unable/unwilling to hear Case’s insistent warning—a near facsimile of the Ukrainian mythology’s anti-moral. For the sparrow: “that hawk’s just hiding, and way faster/bigger/powerful than you, don’t be naive enough to think you can figure it out or escape it.” For us, well, we shouldn’t think that lightning won’t strike us from the sky when we least expect it, because that’s how death works. So stop beating yourself up trying to grasp its “truth,” idolizing or framing it (if I’m good, I go to [awesome happy place]!) as something more than, you know, the end. Speaking of which…

The Monstrously Overdue But Surprisingly Brief Conclusion

Sure, I could go needlessly in-depth with every other song on this record and keep repeating those same themes to show how much deeper their connections go (quick example: pay attention to things she describes as “tender”), but my real point here has already been made many times over: Neko Case has made tremendous progress here as a lyricist, as a myth-interpreter and a myth-maker even beyond what she’d accomplished on Blacklisted. Because either I’m just making way too much out of a bunch of vacuous “alt-country” songs or there actually is a Bejar-sized rabbit hole hiding beneath Case’s “lungs-for-days” voice that begs, and deserves, to be explored. And not just by rambling critics with way too much time on their hands.