The music of Casey Neill & The Norway Rats combines high energy rock rave-ups and haunting lush acoustic reveries built around melodic narrative songwriting. The Norway Rats are a collective of Portland indie all star players whose credits include The Decemberists, Eels, Viva Voce and more. Neill has been touring with the band and solo throughout the USA, Japan, and Europe for more than a decade, performing his songs at venues such as Town Hall in New York, San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, and the Newport Folk Festival. The new Norway Rats record Subterrene is a major leap forward for the band that No Depression calls "a milestone in Neill and company’s trajectory thus far" while Rolling Stone says " (Neill's) songs mask their complexities beneath a simple, singalong-worthy surface... these swimming waters have serious depth."
“Poly Styrene’s prophetic riffing on the alienation of modern synthetic culture is among my favorite lyric writing ever,” says songwriter Casey Neill, who named his latest album Subterrene (March 23 / Incident Recordings) as a nod to cult punk icons, X-Ray Spex (the lyric is from their great tune “Let’s Submerge”).
That familiar, ecstatic collision of hope and despair, romance and chaos, past and future, is at the core of Subterrene the first album in five years from Casey Neill & The Norway Rats, a band with a reputation as a Portland supergroup: Neill on guitar and vocals, The Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee-Drizos on keyboards, Eels’ Chet Lyster on guitars and production, Amelia’s Jesse Emerson on bass, and Priory’s Joe Mengis on drums, with contributions from Scott McCaughey and REM’s Peter Buck (Neill often performs with Scott and Peter in The Minus 5), along with Thayer Serrano and Death Cab for Cutie’s Dave Depper. (Chris Funk from the Decemberists produced Casey’s previous LP, All You Pretty Vandals).
Described by Neill as a work of “dystopian romance,” Subterrene is all about storytelling, punk rock grit and alt-rock abandon. From its very first moments, it’s clear that Neill is tapping into new creative wells, eschewing the Americana roots of his past albums in favor of bolder arrangements that draw on a wide variety of influences. Synthesizers and electronic elements weave in and out underneath razor sharp guitars, while Neill’s reedy, raspy voice can call to mind everyone from Michael Stipe to the late Gord Downie.
While not a traditional concept album, Subterrene follows a distinct story arc, and the ominous-yet-defiantly-optimistic portraits it paints were inspired in equal parts by vintage sci-fi novels, our current political climate, and the globetrotting manner in which Neill’s lived for the past few years.
“I started buying old trade paperback copies of Ursula K. Le Guin science fiction books,” he explains. “Her stories are so political and dark, but her perspective on the world is still totally filled with hope, and that was very much on my mind while I was writing these songs.”
At the same time, Neill was having flashbacks to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner during multiple tours of Japan with Big Bridges—his side project with legendary guitar hero Takashi O’Hashi—and getting a firsthand look at the current state of America as he reconnected with his activist roots on a marathon tour on behalf of an environmental group protesting Trump administration policies.
“There’s an ugliness out there that needs to be confronted,” says Neill, “but I think in the process, we also have to be careful not to lose whatever spark we have inside us. We’re not trying to fight what we hate; we’re trying to defend what we love.”
Over the past five years, Neill’s had quite a bit of time to reflect on where it’s all taken him, so it should come as little surprise that many of the songs on Subterrene contemplate just what it means to truly find yourself. While the album offers no easy answers, it does manage find some of the magic in the madness. On tracks like “In the Swim” and “Deathless,” Neill reconciles the pain of loss with beauty of life, while on the hypnotic “Savages,” he’s able to look back fondly on the struggles of self-discovery from a safe distance, and “Everyone Wants to be Found” draws inspiration from the work of late journalist Matt Power, a friend who managed to capture the essence of characters from around the globe with his writing.
“When you make a living as a musician or a journalist or doing anything that involves a lot of traveling,” says Neill, “you get to know people all over the world and find out you’re linked to them in ways never even imagined. That song really draws on that feeling of being connected to people. It’s about finding your place in the world, even if it turns out that that place is everywhere.”