In June, I road-tripped with my two best friends from our hometown of Baltimore to our friend’s new house in Pittsburgh. The four-hour drive is gorgeous; it’s the kind of expansive trip where you listen to audiobooks or full albums rather than playlists. The long, empty roads surrounded by mountains and periodic tiny roadside amusement parks make one feel very Americana à la Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” diners with cracked leather seats, and West Virginian hikes. We drove along feeling very special and very much a part of mountainous American lore that only musician Neko Case, a single lane road, and our rosy imaginations could give us.
During that drive, I introduced my friends to “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.” Released in 2006, “Fox Confessor” is Neko Case’s third album recorded under her own name and fifth total, counting her first two albums recorded with the band Neko Case & Her Boyfriends. It contains “Star Witness,” the first song of hers I ever heard (also while driving, that time from Amherst to North Adams to see a concert at Mass MoCA in March). I never stopped listening after that; “Fox Confessor” was the soundtrack of the rest of my spring semester, the music to which I biked and walked through gloomy March mornings, rainy April afternoons, and gloriously green May evenings.
Case left home at age 15, and by 18, she was performing as a drummer for two different bands. Her career spans over two decades and a range of genres including country, folk, art rock, indie rock, and pop. To me, everything about Case is a mix of defiance and acceptance, power and softness, her discography a dizzying, beautiful mix that fills you up and rustles your hair and makes you feel like part of something really grand.
I spent lots of time with Neko Case’s music over the summer, but didn’t listen to my now very favorite album of hers, “Furnace Room Lullaby,” until my friend Eva sent the seventh track, “Thrice All American,” to me in late August, saying “this is like bmore!” The song is about Tacoma, Washington, where Case spent her teenage years and got her start in a venue called the World Musical Theater. When Case was living there, Tacoma was full of poverty, ruined infrastructure, and gang violence. The title of “Thrice All American” comes from the fact that Tacoma has been given the title of “All-American City” three times.
In the song, Case swells with pride for the “dusty old jewel”: “People, they laugh when they hear you’re from my town / They say it’s a sour and used up ol’ place,” she sings. “I’ve defended its honor, I shrugged off the put-downs.” A Tacoman reviewer on songmeanings.com wrote, “Our town’s a shithole, everyone knows it, but goddamn, we love it anyway.” My friends and I called this summer our “summer of Baltimore,” and the way that Case sings about Tacoma is exactly how we feel about our city. All working jobs in Baltimore and free to go where we pleased, we finally had the chance to really get to know our hometown. Baltimore was nicknamed “Charm City” by a panel of advertisers seeking to improve the city’s reputation. It has an enchanting weirdness enhanced by the fact that it’s rough around the edges, charming and strange and kind of ugly to those who don’t know it — or those who do but don’t look deeper than its surface. Baltimore is bursting with character, music, art, food, and good people.
Stretching beyond the barriers of folk, country, or Americana, Case’s voice is yearning, strong, nostalgic, and completely gorgeous (although she describes it as “not a very pretty voice but a very loud voice”). She packs so much fragile power in small punches — most of the songs on "Furnace Room Lullaby" are under three minutes. “Twist the Knife,” the sixth track on the album and my absolute favorite, is the kind of song that makes you stop everything, squeeze your eyes shut, and just listen with your entire body. The song is about giving a wounded self away to someone who, very gently, twists the knife and deepens the wound, but still begging them to take more. The chorus is completely heart-wrenching; Case sings “You’ll be my guest / And I’ll let you stay / Leave me the check / I’ll pay with the rest of my life / Twist the knife.” Another superb song about the perils of love, “Bought and Sold,” features another favorite lyric of mine: “Nobody said that love was gonna be kind / But they did say that it was as pleasurable as it was divine.” A sense of nostalgia and loss haunts the album’s twelfth and final track, “Furnace Room Lullaby.”
While Case transcends genre, I love “Furnace Room Lullaby” for all the reasons I love American folk music. A living art form, it connects past and present and envelops you into the story. Folk music is distinctly communal, tied to the earth on which it is played just as much as to those who play it and those who listen. “Furnace Room Lullaby” is murky and haunting, its desolate sound also incredibly whole. It’s large enough to fill the space as large as the roads hugged by mountains between Baltimore and Pittsburgh and small enough to make me squeeze my eyes shut and fold into the feeling of my headphones in my ears. Above all, the album’s deep sense of nostalgia is what keeps me looping back to the beginning.