Jukebox Breakdown: Neko Case – “Deep Red Bells”

Welcome to Jukebox Breakdown, a column where we write about songs we love. Less about overarching themes or through-lines, Jukebox Breakdown is simply a space for our thoughts on perfect tracks.

Jukebox Breakdown: Neko Case – “Deep Red Bells”

by Chad Jewett

“Deep Red Bells” drifts in on black clouds, full of portent, like the cool-yet-eerie breeze of a storm about to roll in. The finest song on Neko Case’s excellent 2002 LP, Blacklisted, “Deep Red Bells” stands as a compelling sum of what the album does best – its sudden sweet-sour turns from major to minor; its chilling backcountry noir storytelling; its constant hints of darkness and desperation. The song taps into a penchant for gothic Americana that remains one of Cases’s most compelling registers. “Deep Red Bells” has a certain almost religious mysticism to it: it sounds huge (thanks largely to Neko Case’s vocal performance, a tour de force that ranks among her very best) but it also has an ominous god’s-eye-view that feels positively titanic. The production is spacious and echoing; pedal steel and deep-twanging guitars ring out as if against a broad night sky. It’s rare that a recording sounds like it’s living in the outdoors. But such is the case with “Deep Red Bells”.

The song works hard for its haunted atmosphere, but a sudden late-arriving turn spells a barometric shift into a deceptively warm register, the song’s spidery minor-key pivoting into a bright major. “Does your soul cast about like an old paper bag? / Past empty lots and early graves? / All those like you who lost their way, murdered on the interstate / While the red bells rang like thunder”. But it’s a change that underlines the general distress at the heart of a song that Neko Case said was written about her experience growing up in Washington during the height of the Green River killings. ““When I was a kid in Tacoma, we were all scared all the time,” Case told the New York Times. “I actually carried a knife to school with me. The ‘you’ in the song is one of his victims. They were all prostitutes, but we didn’t know that. They could have been anybody; they could have been us.” Here we see the richness of what “Deep Red Bells” does – the way it expresses empathy for victims. It is a song about violence done to women, rendered in the stark clarity of a lightning storm.

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