Civilizations don’t come up with folktales purely for entertainment purposes. From Native American turtle creation myths to the Bible to Superman comics, there’s a long history of humans using stories to explain where we come from and why we act the way we do.
In her own abstract, non-moralistic way, that’s what Neko Case does on her fourth album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood — an indie-rock landmark released 10 years ago today (March 7, 2006). Partially inspired by the Ukrainian myths her grandmother told her as a kid, Fox Confessor is the Virginia-born, Tacoma-raised singer-songwriter’s attempt to “figure out how fairytales are born,” as she said in a statement announcing the project.
This pursuit leads the former punk rocker and sometime New Pornographer to some pretty dark places. It also inspires music that pushes past the alt-country of Case’s early albums and into what fans have aptly termed “country noir.” Case had already hinted at where she was headed with her third album, 2002’s Blacklisted, which features plenty of the forebodingly sexy Twin Peaks guitars found here. But that LP came with more conventional song structures and parsable lyrics. On Fox Confessor, Neko sets fire to the rule book. Verses and choruses are out. Animal metaphors are in. No man, child, or beast is safe.
“In a way, this whole record is about losing faith,” Case told Spin in 2006. “In your country. In your culture. In yourself. I need something that makes me feel more camaraderie with my fellow humans. And don’t give me Christianity — I need something real.”
There are spots on Fox Confessor where she seems to find the connection she’s looking for. She empathizes with widows and mothers of murdered children and allows herself to imagine how joyous it must be to believe in things like the story of John the Baptist or the notions of true love you form at 15. Ultimately, though, Fox Confessor ain’t about redemption songs. It’s an album of ugly truths beautifully rendered.
Backed by an all-star cast (Canadian country rockers The Sadies, punkabilly guitar ace Dex Romweber, and Garth Hudson of The Band, among others), Case and her co-producer, Darryl Neuforf, make hallucinatory roots music that references past eras without revisiting them. Known for her hurricane of a voice, Case pulls back, treating these arresting melodies with the delicacy they deserve. As her characters self-medicate, self-destruct, and descend into madness, she finds beauty in the human carnival.
Read on for a track-by-track review of this, an alt-country masterpiece even more brilliant than the 66,000 tweets — many about humanity’s foibles and the virtue of animals — Case has since added to her body of work.
“Margaret v. Pauline”: Based on characters from Richard Brautigan’s novel In Watermelon Sugar, the first of Case’s sideway fables packs a lot — and also tantalizingly little — into 2:53. Over folky acoustic strumming, winter-mist electric lead, and creepy sideshow organ from Garth Hudson, Case sketches a story about one girl who glides through life and another who’s all thrashing, aching, and wanting. In the final verse, when the action shifts to the subway, Case reminds us that no one — not even blessed Pauline — gets a free ride: “One left a sweater sitting on the train / and the other lost three fingers at the cannery.”
“Star Witness”: One of the finest songs in Case’s canon, “Star Witness” uses brushed drums and Twin Peaks guitars to connect four stories featuring varying degrees of violence. The first is about a guy who “drowned in a dirty old pan of oil” — a suspicious demise that draws the attention of local reporters, who naturally get the details wrong. By contrast, the media can’t be bothered to report on the inner-city Chicago killing described in the final scene, starring a distraught mother whose cries of “Please, don’t let him die” are easy to hear over the lack of sirens. In between, a girl skins her knee, a woman backslides into an abusive relationship, and “tender wolves” prowl the town, probably because they smell blood.
“Hold On, Hold On”: Jangly ‘80s college-rock throwback meets gunfighter ballad on this apparently autobiographical song, wherein Case comes to some harsh realizations. First, she’s from a family of freaks (“my own blood is much too dangerous”). Second, her relationships have mostly been bad (“…somebody’s in-between girl”). Finally, she’s going to embrace her lone-wolfishness and leave her friend’s wedding “with a valium from the bride” instead of with some dude. Wilson Phillips can sing about whatever they want — this is Neko’s version of holding on for one more day.
“A Widow’s Toast”: The guitars and banjos hover like phantoms as Case and bandmate Kelly Hogan crash a séance for widows. As attendees toast their late partners and try to make fleeting connections rooted not in the supernatural, but rather self-delusion, Case tries to draw a hopeful conclusion: “Better times are coming still.”
“That Teenage Feeling”: The ‘50s-era 6/8 malt-shop ballads that Case is referencing here were all about yearning for idealized love. Case comes at the tradition from the standpoint of a 30-something who’s filled with secrets and regrets. The guitars are scratched up and sinister, and yet Case longs to be like her friend who still believes in the love you imagine before you’re old enough to know better.
“Fox Confessor Brings the Flood”: There are many versions of the Ukrainian myth referenced here, all involving a cunning fox who tricks a wolf into confessing his sins. The moral is to beware of those promising spiritual salvation, though things are a bit murkier in Case’s update. Over brambles of trebly guitar, Case follows the Fox Confessor into the woods and asks why she’s been “married to these orphan blues.” His response: “It’s not for you to know / but for you to weep and wonder.” And weep she does, flooding her sleeves as she leaves the scene, feeling more alone in the universe than ever.
“John Saw That Number”: Grabbing lyrics from the 1939 book Honey in the Rock: The Ruby Pickens Tartt Collection of Religious Folk Songs from Sumter County, Alabama, Case delivers one hell of a New Testament rockabilly burner. She and Hogan sing with tent-revival flair — like they really want to believe in God sending an angel to check on John (and maybe the rest of us, too).
“Dirty Knife”: Case saves the disc’s most explicitly sinister music — the sawing string sounds first heard around 1:20 — for this tale of a man who loses his mind and holes up in his house. This is another product of Case’s grandmother’s storytelling — and in fact, it’s based on something that happened in their own family. Maybe that’s why Neko sings, “Blood runs crazy,” with both sorrow and a hint of fear.
“Lion’s Jaws”: Having sung of wolves and foxes, Case naturally gets around to the king of the jungle. He’s used in this abstract honky-tonk weeper as a metaphor for whatever self-destructive coping mechanism gets Case’s heartbroken protagonist through the day. “Momentum for the sake of momentum,” she sings, as Kelly Hogan’s dreamy background vocals and the swelling strings help elucidate what a haze this woman is in.
“Maybe Sparrow”: Banjo, violin, and Garth Hudson’s organ set the scene for Neko’s failed attempt to save a sparrow’s life. She tells the tiny bird to not to fly at night, when the sky is filled with hawks, but her words go unnoticed, and Case is left with a “body limp beneath my feet.” In a chilling twist, Case seems to imply a similar fate might await the airliner passengers “who cannot hear the words” as they zoom obliviously through a thunderstorm.
“At Last”: The more Case realizes humans are animals, the more she’s able to distance herself from the screwy things people do to each other. Maybe that’s why this acoustic ballad about death is called “At Last.” There’s a feeling of inevitability and relief as Neko waits for the bells to toll.
“The Needle Has Landed”: In perhaps another moment of autobiography, Case sings of heading back to Washington years after departing via Greyhound. There are swooping eagles and fighter jets overhead, like her narrator probably remembers, but the ex she’s come back for is gone. The guitar strokes get choppier as she recounts how this departed lover’s later girlfriends “clawed up the bible” praying that she’d never return. Well, Case is back, and as the music gradually lightens — turning from the midnight jangle of the first verse to the new morning signaled by the closing banjo and violin — it appears she’s found some perspective to go with her regret.