I have seen Neko Case live more times than any other artist (if you count New Pornographers shows, which I do, because they definitely count). She’s fierce and darkly funny. She breaks the rules of songwriting so subtly that you don’t even notice it until you realize that you haven’t heard a verse-chorus-verse structure in the last seven songs. Her Twitter feed is real AF and also amplifies the voices of other women artists. Her house burned down and she wrote one of her best songs, “Bad Luck,” about it. She’s a badass mofo and I wish she was my neighbor. I pounced on her 2018 release, Hell-On, as soon as it was available, and grabbed tickets to her show at the Beacon Theatre. So it was inevitable that when I looked back on 2018 in music, I’d have something to say about Neko Case. I’m going to say it about “Curse of the I-5 Corridor.”
I remember a few stretches of my life similarly: long strings of late, lonely nights, full of words but as jejune as a dry socket. My freshman year of high school, my sophomore year of college, and, especially, in my early thirties. It was then that I was trying, with results that careered from hilarious to painful to harrowing to joyful, to date in New York City, and I had to construct a cynical veneer, flimsy as plywood, to nail over a heart that always felt like the engorged, lurid red organ of Catholic iconography. Dating was a goddamn hurricane and my OKCupid profile was boarded up and spray-painted with NOT GOING ANYWHERE in neon pink.
In “Curse of the I-5 Corridor,” Neko Case gets that shit, all right? The words of that song are among her realest of all time: So I left home and faked my ID/I fucked every man that I wanted to be/I was so stupid then/why should mystery give its life for me? Indeed. I remember a man I dated expressing trepidation that I’d get too attached. I had to remind him that I didn’t even know his last name. And then that chorus, Neko’s beautiful voice, like a Great Lake of sadness and wisdom, washes in, the current of Mark Lanegan’s gritty baritone moving under the surface: Baby I’m afraid/but it’s not your fault/maybe I should go home alone tonight.
So many nights like that: nights spent at home alone or out at bars I wasn’t cool enough for (and ending up home alone anyway). I remember sitting at the narrow desk tucked under my lofted bed in my tiny apartment in Greenpoint, dark except for the white Ikea lamp with its shabby-chic cotton shade throwing light onto an eighteen-inch circle of the particleboard work surface, flipping through yet more dating profiles and deleting the most recent string of hey baby what’s up messages. “Curse of the I-5 Corridor” wasn’t there yet, of course, and yet that song has lived in my heart since I realized, as the narrator does in that song, what a waste of time all of it can feel like.
The story ends happily, or happily enough, for both of us. Neko Case became a rock star (or, as the New York Times Crossword referred to her, “indie singer”). I eventually met a good man. But curses linger. She’s still singing to someone, someone who wasn’t even good enough for her in the first place: Your orbit is so easy/you haven’t gained a day/we’re two self-fulfilling prophecies/who don’t even have each other/not that we would ever get away with it. Memories of those lost nights and weekends don’t go away. The man who forgot to tell me his last name still lives in Inwood, and we talk sometimes, and I know his last name now. I’m married, and he lives alone in Inwood and falls for women who are unavailable, unwell, dangerous, or some combination of all three. Two self-fulfilling prophecies indeed.
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