Neko Case’s voice comes from a world where birds are stronger than windows, and always get where they are going.
Her first, unaccompanied words in “Oh, Shadowless” make the silence they break feel like something solid, a windshield with night behind it. “Oh” is the roundest of sounds – but when she sings it, it has an edge, a point. What strange houses can be built on this voice’s geometry?
In this song, it’s a bedroom with a view “out the backdoor.” The song is a lullaby: “Gonna make your bed, / gonna smooth your brow.” And it’s an insomnia song: “Sandman is a’comin, / but he’s taking too long.” When things get weird, it’s not clear whether the sleeper has gone into dreamland, or if the dreams, tired of waiting, have come out and landed in the backyard.
The weirdness sneaks up on you: “Shining new with dew / upon the grass / just focus past me / where idles a comet / waiting for you.” The comet is the star of the show in this sentence – the big reveal – but Case hides it at the end. We learn that something has landed, dew-decked, over the shoulder of the person singing to us, before we learn that what we’re looking at is a comet. The result: the comet is as much of a surprise to the listener as it is to Shadowless.
There’s musical surprise, too: a monotone bass solo summons a whirlwind instrumental bridge. The rhythm section rocks on under a weird howling, like the voice of a tornado, until the piano brings us back to earth and Case’s voice steps into the light again.
“Oh, Shadowless” debuts on “Wild Creatures,” a 23-track collection of songs from across Case’s solo career. The one new song on a retrospective album, like the new beau at a family reunion, is in conversation with all the others – and everybody’s looking to see if it fits in. This one is entirely itself, like every – every – Neko Case composition, a result of her artistry as a producer.
But in the lyrics, there are echoes. “What drove the sun away, / I’m far too small to know” she sings on 2018’s “Dirty Diamond.” And here, “Oh shadowless… / I’m just too small / to know where you are going / but I feel you still.” Hearing that, I wonder if this song is a sequel to that one – if Shadowless in this song is one of the “sightless creatures” the singer finds at the bus stop and takes home in the other – all grown up, or almost, being sung to sleep by their “random defender.”
The character who sings this song is more shadow than substance – only visible as we look away, following the instruction, “just focus past me.” Also present as an absence is the missing shadow. Where did it go? How was it lost? The song includes these questions by not asking them, and builds a story out of what it leaves out.
Who casts no shadow? Someone in total darkness, or someone light passes through. A ghost who needs to be sung to sleep. Or someone who gives off light – Shadowless could be the moon.