A few weeks ago, my partner and I were listening to Sound Opinions on NPR while doing house chores. It was their “Best Albums of the Year…so far” show. One of the songs they played was Neko Case‘s “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” from her 2009 album Middle Cyclone. We didn’t pay close attention to the song as it went by quickly, but we both thought it sounded pretty good. Now we’re not totally out of it, but neither of us had heard of Neko Case before, despite her billboard success. So I got online and did some “research” to find out a bit about her. That basically amounted to learning that she’d spent some time in Canada (studying at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design no less, though it was called the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design then), and was a singer for The New Pornographers, a band I did know. At my partner’s suggestion, we bought the album.
Well, in the last couple of days I have finally gotten around to giving it a good listen. And I like what I hear. I also like what Case has to say. I had no idea about this beforehand, but it turns out that she has a real thing for animals and our relationships with them.
For me this realization started with the catchy “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” which I noticed makes reference to elephants and killer whales. But the chorus goes:
I’m a man-man-man, man-man-man-eater and still you’re surprised when i eat you
So I just assumed that she was using “man-eater” in the metaphorical sense of the term. Then I decided to have a look at the lyrics, which are not included in the otherwise wonderful CD booklet, but are on Case’s own web site. Both the lyrics and the music video (see below) for the song suggest that this is literally about animals and the distorted relationships we pursue with them. In fact, Case was interviewed for an iTunes Originals compilation and said of this song:
‘People Got a Lotta Nerve’ is a song I wrote after watching a lot of nature television in a hotel where they had the nature disaster shows. And there were lots of orcas biting their trainers’ legs off and people being attacked by tigers in zoos and you know elephants stamping people to death. It’s just kind of bizarre that animals act like animals and people act so shocked.
Before proceeding, you might as well watch the wonderful music video for “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” and listen to the song, of course.
OK, so she’s not doing the obvious thing like telling us to “save the animals,” “stop the hunt,” etc. Case’s approach seems to be to remind us to recognize the intelligence, individuality, and subjectivity of animals. It’s more of a “let’s be realistic about these creatures” kind of message. It’s neither sentimental, nor preachy; it’s matter of fact.
If there was any question about her intentionality vis-à-vis animals, it was dispelled when I found out that she has been supporting Best Friends Animal Society. Here is a public service announcement she made for Best Friends which encourages fans to download “People Got A Lotta Nerve” to help raise money for the group.
Middle Cyclone also features some other songs that suggest the need for a healthy respect for animals and Nature, including “I’m an Animal,” “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” (by Sparks), and the lead track, “This Tornado Loves You,” which is about just that, a tornado that loves the subject of the song. “What would it be like to be pursued by a force of nature?” asks Case on her MySpace page. Indeed. The final track on the album is “Marais La Nuit,” a nearly 32 minute recording of the sounds coming from the marsh (marais) on Case’s farm in Vermont.
I feel like one of the real tragedies is that, as a species, human beings are constantly trying to deny or sublimate our natural instincts,
says Case (again on the MySpace page). And doesn’t that just cut to the heart of the matter?
Well, there is a lot more that I could explore and say here, but I think I have mostly made my point. There is plenty out there about Case, and I would suggest this piece from the New York Times. Also, NPR has quite a number of Neko Case concerts and interviews. Enjoy.
Postscript: While poking around online to learn more about Neko Case, I came across this post about musical tributes to animals. Among the songs featured are ones by Weeping Tile, The Weakerthans (both in my music collection), Modest Mouse (see Heath Ledger’s King Rat Video), and, of course, Neko Case. Good stuff.