It’s not easy to talk about the connection between art and pain without coming across like a trite parrot who is only saying what everyone has already said for a long time on the subject. But then, I am not Neko Case.
I haven’t known about her music for very long. My best pal Bill and I would sometimes exchange mixtapes like a couple of middle schoolers who went to the same summer camp but lived in different cities. His were always better than mine, including but not limited to the one that had all of Middle Cyclone, some of The Virginian, and a handful of other tunes on it with that cryptic name scrawled across it in finepoint Sharpie.
Was it a dude? A band of dudes? A lady? I had no idea, because I have clung tightly to the edge of music’s shallow end for most of my life.
Neko Case, as it turns out, is like the Pacific Northwest’s Billie Holiday, her clear voice bursting through lush arrangements like sunlight through a small hole in a cloudy sky. I listened to her songs almost exclusively in my car on long drives down to Mankato from Bemidji. Five hours of Neko Case is not enough. You need a week, a whole season, a summer sublet in her catalog to really let it take full effect.
One afternoon I finally Googled her, and I was shocked to learn that she was not nineteen at all. She was in her forties, but with a youthful voice and with a generous head of youthful, copper hair and a face that has obviously known a lot of sad places. Her most recent album is called The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. And she means it. You can just tell.
Leslie and I caught her show a while back at First Ave, the house that Prince built in downtown Minneapolis. It was out first time there, and we swayed for two hours while she played through most of that new record for us. On our walk home afterward, we talked about what a charismatic bandleader she wasn’t, how she seemed shy and uncomfortable most of the time, how she let the incredible Kelly Hogan do most of the talking, and how that made us love her even more because she seemed like one of those authentic types who can’t muster up the masquerade when they aren’t in the mood.
It’s rare to see an artist twice while they are supporting the same record, but lighting stuck once more, though this time we found it across the river at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theatre (not pictured: Garrison Keillor, who I assume I never not there). The opening act was a man from Brazil named Rodrigo Aramante, and the image I keep coming back to when describing how he sounded is “like a bottle of red wine on a day with soft rains.” I know, I know—that probably doesn’t help anyone appreciate how good he was, how relaxing and hypnotic and beautiful his songs were, but I am what I am and that’s the best I can do.
Actually, because of the Internet, I can do one better and let you have a listen if you have a minute.
And then there was Neko Case.
She sang more of her older songs that she did at First Ave, and she hit almost all of our favorites. The album Fox Confessor Brings The Flood is probably pressed into the vinyl of Leslie’s heart, and she hit the two big ones for her: “Maybe Sparrow” and “That Teenage Feeling” (during which we cried and held each other in a moment I am sure will be pressed into the vinyl of our story forever and ever). I love Middle Cyclone especially, and she played “This Tornado Loves You” and “The Pharaohs” late in her set and it was perfect.
Two hours is not long enough for a Neko Case concert. It needs to be a week, a season, a summer sublet. You know what I mean. These shows are so fleeting, and it’s beautiful to have a chance to breathe the same air with an artist as they spin their hits and deep cuts for you, and I’m aware I’m getting greedy with my rock and roll appetite. But when songs are as delicious as hers, can you blame me for my gluttony?
Her stories are sometimes really sad, and marbled with the salty sting of loneliness, of mistakes, of someone wishing for intimacy. “The most tender place in my heart is for strangers,” she sings, and I get it. Do you get it? Maybe you do. Sometimes it’s hard to reach out your hand when you have to force it though the complicated histories we build with people. She sings about animals a lot. She sings about fragile people in fragile places, and about lots of pretty things she’s seen and felt, too.
In some universe far worse than the one we live in, Neko Case never found that gorgeous voice or the gorgeous words to articulate those ugly feelings. She might be addicted, abused, or dead. But we don’t live in that universe, and neither does she, and instead she can teach us that things will get worse, that we should fight hard and love harder because sometimes it’s still possible to know that teenage feeling.
You probably know the one I mean. In fact I know you do. And if you’re waiting to know it again, Neko Case offers sound advice: hold on, hold on.