Probably the first thing a listener who’s familiar with Neko Case will recognize on Middle Cyclone (other than the absolutely badass cover) is how similar it sounds to her previous album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood. The animal imagery (“I’m An Animal”), the true crime-like study of people on the wrong side of the law (“Prison Girls”), and the songs themselves that seem to masquerade themselves as Gothic fairytales are all over both releases.
When you first pop in Middle Cyclone, you find out that the album is almost double the length of her last album. That’s great news if you love Neko Case. Unfortunately, the majority of that length comes not from her voice but from frogs outside her studio in the ambient 20 minute-plus closer “Marais La Nuit.” That revelation makes that cut seem more like a nasty joke Case played on her fans, but after repeat listens, it’s a fitting capper to an album that’s perfect late night listening material. An extended lullaby to lull the listener to sleep.
With that last track out of the way, the listener is left with 14 songs that total under 40 minutes, making it a typical Neko Case album in terms of length. On the first few listens, Middle Cyclone seems more like a continuation of Fox Confessor than a separate album unto itself. Two songs, “This Tornado Loves You” and “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” are among her poppiest songs. The open vulnerability of the title track shows Case getting even stronger as a songwriter. The pinnacle of her songwriting talents is the beautiful, moody “Prison Girls.” The prison imagery literally unfolds to a listener’s ear as Case slowly takes them inside: “The lights were spokes and rungs away / I stumble back and hit the floor / Long shadows crawl beneath the door / To a passage so poorly lit / There’s moths flying away from it.”
Of course, the most striking thing in all of Neko Case’s albums is her voice. If you’ve never heard her voice before, you’ll hear one of the most original voices of the past decade. And if her vocals resonate, it’s more than likely the first album of hers you pick up will be your favorite and you’ll judge that disc against all of her other works. For those who caught on to Case with Blacklisted or Fox Confessor, Middle Cyclone may take multiple listens to reveal its distinction, but it’s hardly a taxing task. If Middle Cyclone is your first exposure, there’s a great chance that it will be your favorite Neko Case release. Either way, the album, like Case herself, is a treasure.