This piece is part of the Detours series. Detours are deep dives, because music deserves time and context. Listen, breathe deep, take the scenic route.
Neko Case’s 2009 LP Middle Cyclone is my desert island album.
I was 12 the first time I heard it, and it was introduced to me by my mother, whose red hair, west coast roots, and anti-establishment attitude make her and Case something like kindred spirits. Instead of reading The Giver and memorizing the capitals of every European country like the rest of my middle school classmates, I was traveling across Cambodia with my mom—she’s a doctor specializing in cross-cultural psychiatry. At one point during our trip, we visited an army base on the border between Cambodia and Thailand. We spent the afternoon touring the camp, exchanging words and gifts in Khmer with soldiers old and young, blistered by the dry season sun. When our visit was suddenly cut short by a report of unidentified planes flying overhead, we hastened back towards our van to depart, only to find that it had broken down. Our driver improvised a temporary fix, but a few hours later we had pulled to the side of the road; our vehicle was past repair.
The spot our van gave out became our island, and we were stranded until help arrived. We waited on the steps of a nearby house whose inhabitants were strangers, but kind, and watched us curiously as we watched the vacant road in front of us. Many hours later, headlights punctured the night, and after some incomprehensible negotiating, we piled into the cab, sticky from sweat and aching for home. In preparation for our long ride back, my mother pulled a pair of earphones out of her backpack, plugged them into her iPod Shuffle, and handed me one. Case’s “The Pharaohs” was the first song to play.
The twang of the opening cords filled my mind with the frontiers, cowboys, and shotguns of the Wild West. In my own strange context, these images were transposed with unfamiliar expanses, soldiers, and danger. I let my shoulders fall and my mind wander, guided by Case’s voice. “The Pharaohs” is a story before it’s a song, which could be said about all of her music. It’s also the way she describes her vocal style: “It’s not about beauty. It’s about telling a story.”
From the Himalayan mountains to the Norwegian fjords, Middle Cyclone became the anthem of every trip my mother and I made together during my adolescence. As Case contends in “I’m An Animal,” airports—and traveling, by extension—were the scent of our heaven. Saturated with flora and fauna and devoted to the omnipotence of mother earth, Middle Cyclone was the perfect backdrop for two women determined to explore the world together, unaccompanied and unafraid. We’re both a bit timid by nature, but Case gave us teeth, sharpness behind softness, our “courage roaring like the sound of the sun” (I’m An Animal).
Named after the core rotational structure of a thunderstorm, Middle Cyclone garnered high praise from fans and critics alike. Pitchfork lauded Case’s predilection for atypical song constructions, demonstrated in her circumvention of standard verse-chorus-verse structures on half the album’s tracks. I would add poetic personification to Case’s list of songwriting skills. On “Vengeance is Sleeping,” her love lives outdoors, so she has to “drag it home by force.” In “Magpie To The Morning,” she demands sorrow take his own advice and “hide under the bed, turn out the light.”
Such demands are emblematic of Case’s character and corpus; she screams in the face of emotional torment. Case is a force to be reckoned with, and like the natural ones she embodies—tornados and cyclones—she moves through space unapologetically. She’s also completely autonomous; since the start of her career, Case has managed to retain the rights to all her songs, has never signed a publishing deal, and still co-produces the majority of her music. Case knows her worth and has no reason to compromise on it. Women do that enough as it is, she told reporters back in 2018.
With a background in punk rock, sprawling forearm tattoos, and a voice like a "fire hose," Case’s take-no-shit grit is practically proverbial. What’s less obvious—and less often acknowledged—is her ability to admit vulnerability. At first it can seem facetious, like when she tells her ex-lover, “The next time you say ‘forever,’ I will punch you in your face” (“The Next Time You Say ‘Forever’”). But then in the next line, she admits, “Just because you don’t believe it doesn’t mean I didn’t mean it.” On the album’s title track, backed with the twinkling chimes of a child’s music box, her hardness is revealed to be less strategic and more symptomatic: “I can’t give up acting tough, it’s all that I’m made of,” she concedes. “Can’t scrape together quite enough, to ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love.”
The only criticism Middle Cyclone received was for its last track—a 31-minute-long ode to the chirps and croaks of various night critters. At best, “Marais la Nuit” was superfluous; at worst it was unpleasant—even "pretentious," critics said. But I disagree, and actually appreciate Case’s album all the more for it. She made the recording at her farmhouse in Vermont, which she’s described as the “only place” she ever felt she belonged or “fit in.” To share the recording, then, is to share one’s deepest source of comfort, and to invite others to find comfort in that source as well.
The desert island my mother and I found ourselves on was not the last on which that comfort was welcome. I’ve been stuck on many more islands of different forms since then, and will surely encounter more. But in those moments of immobility or stagnation, I have and will continue to find comfort in Middle Cyclone—an album that doubles as both sword and shield.
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