The year 2008 tumbled out of itself and took with it the things that consumed my days. Within a month I had lost my job to the upholding of liquor laws, my college education to an unavoidable graduation, and my girlfriend to youth and general apathy.
I spent a lot of time in bed, not depressed, but reading depressing things—Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems 1966-1987, William Matthews’s Search Party, Rick Bass’s In the Loyal Mountains—often out loud. I read Heaney in an impassioned Irish accent, Bass with a gruff-yet-kind tone of wonderment. I read Matthews sitting up, as if at a podium, addressing a faceless sum of the discontinued millions.
There were certain lengths I was willing to go to in order to not be myself.
* * *
The year my record collection was expanding in the direction of genres with hyphens, Neko’s album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was new and garnering attention from nearly everywhere. But I had no way of justifying a listen, couldn’t be bothered to look into what I assumed was another minor cultural fascination—music for girls with stupid glasses, tolerated by their boyfriends with stupid haircuts. NPR with teeth, which is to say, guessing at a closed mouth.
I eventually listened to an earlier album of hers called Blacklisted. It was a collection of dark, simple folk songs. Colorful chords and a big voice, layered to taste. I liked it and listened to more of her albums, got a sense of how she was growing. The Virginian, her debut, was a lot of silly twang, an endearing shout. Her next, Furnace Room Lullaby, began heaping on the residual pangs of murder and heartbreak that would show up in full-force on Blacklisted. When I finally got to Fox Confessor, I found that she had nearly completely pulled up her roots and moved on to make the sort of music that is definitely pop—pretty songs designed for consumption—but the painful kind, inflected with jokes and jazz and other sneaky things that ruin everything with truth, rebuild it with better lies.
An announcement of a new album by Neko Case came at the end of 2008. It was to be called Middle Cyclone, and its arrival, for whatever reason, became a point of blind devotion as motions of stability took their exit from my life.
* * *
I searched daily for a leak of Middle Cyclone. Once the track-list was released, I searched for the titles, too. “This Tornado Loves You” and “Vengeance Is Sleeping” and “Magpie to the Morning.” I wasn’t sure what it all meant. The album cover was revealed: Neko brandishing a hand-and-a-half broadsword, kneeling in an attack-pose on the hood of a 1967 Mercury Cougar. I made it the background on my computer.
By the time the album turned up, it was mid-February and beyond cold. Wisconsin in the winter is both a literal and figurative state of ice. Live here for as long as I have and you’ll figure out why so many people believe in a vengeful God.
The first song started with a low, wavering tremolo guitar and then picked up with a full arrangement. It wavered, broke itself down with descending organ and vocals that steamrolled from the background in a manic echo.
Lyrically, it was set-up almost as a prompt: what would happen if a tornado loved you? Death and destruction, obviously. As I listened and re-listened to the song, I realized that the question could be broadened and the answer would stay the same. What would happen if anyone loved you?
Death and destruction. Obviously.
My love, I am the speed of sound.
I left them motherless, fatherless,
their souls dangling inside-out from their mouths,
but it’s never enough.
I want you.[“This Tornado Loves You”]
* * *
I had sex on Christmas night in 2008 and then not again for over a year. We stopped somewhere in the middle because she was crying. I asked her why and she said I don’t know, which is the long way of saying It’s you, which is the long way of saying nothing.
We wouldn’t officially split up until early spring of the following year, but the relationship was over. After we were done, I had a brief, ill-fated, and mostly secret fling with one of our mutual friends. I can’t stress those qualifiers enough. It took nearly no time at all for that relationship to prove itself as a non-starter, and the trading places of who was mutual to whom begat a gauntlet of shame that ended, aside from the remaining balance of confusion to be paid in full at a later date, rather poorly and to the suspicions of no one.
I spent a year alone listening to Middle Cyclone. When I finally met another girl—a redhead, coincidentally—it didn’t work out. We dated for a few months and then one day she said, “It’s like you don’t even like me.” I thought about it, and, though I liked her just fine, her point stood: What I am giving you is not equal to what you are giving me.
It was then that I noticed that I had fully developed the partitioning and distribution of my qualities both good—I will listen to you and I will make you laugh—and bad—I will talk endlessly about inconsequential things and I will eventually let you down. Everyone gets a little, occasionally in the form of too much: faux-bravado as satire, exaggeration for comic effect, casual conversation at unnecessary volumes.
Like any other pre-constructed thing, personality or otherwise, this idea is designed around an approximation of damage and its impact.
I listened to Middle Cyclone on repeat, dozens of times. I realized that I will always keep the majority of myself for myself.
I can’t give up actin’ tough,
it’s all that I’m made of.
Can’t scrape together quite enough
to ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love.[“Middle Cyclone”]
* * *
I am confused, incessantly, by how to balance desire with respect. Often, the best I’m able to do is one or the other. This is the opposite of balance, and thoroughly bad.
When I say that I can’t balance those two elements, desire and respect, I don’t mean to say that I turn into an abuser when caught up in a state of yearning or a militant second-waver when I want nothing. All I mean is that I cannot tame the animal I am: I either just am or am not that animal.
It took writing a heroic crown of sonnets—a task of formal poetry akin to waterboarding as therapy—about a fabricated relationship with Neko to make me understand that about myself. Neko, as presented on Middle Cyclone, is the sort of women worth both respecting and desiring: impetuous, loud, wrong, afraid, honest, incomplete, and terribly—truthfully—human.
This means, of course, that she is every woman, and, as such, is worth both respecting and desiring.
Even before Middle Cyclone, Neko addressed the proximity of fear and females from both sides and to much better effect: “Deep Red Bells” deals with the Green River Killer of a 1980s Pacific Northwest and “Pretty Girls” is about young women waiting alone in an abortion clinic. But never before has she done it like on Middle Cyclone, with such an admiration for animals and nature, two things I take a general disinterest in, but whose relevance through her gaze become a manifesto on which I’m willing to sign my name, tattoo on the backs of my eyelids.
It’s made me understand that nobody deserves to feel threatened, that the world itself is a natural threat and needs no help. On the street, in their homes, alone, in public or in any other configuration of place, women deal with different problems, and the problems of theirs that are the same as mine—a man—are dealt with from a different angle.
I won’t claim to understand the anomalies exclusive to females, and though Middle Cyclone hasn’t fixed very many of my personality flaws, it’s opened up a gateway of empathy. I respect fear. Mine, yours, his, hers. I am as feral as anything that breathes.
Pick up that rock, drink from that lake.
I do my best but I’m made of mistakes.
Yes, there are things I’m still quite sure of:
I love you this hour,
this hour today,
and heaven will smell like the airport.
But I may never get there to prove it,
so let’s not waste our time thinking how that ain’t fair.
I’m an animal.
You’re an animal, too.[“I’m an Animal”]