The Best Animal Songs Ever Written: Our Neko Case Playlist

Slate’s animal blog.
Nov. 1 2013 9:00 AM

The Best Animal Songs Ever. Our Neko Case Playlist

Singer/songwriter Neko Case lives on an idyllic farm in Vermont, with dogs, chickens, and horses. She advocates for shelter animals. She has called herself a “critter.” And her animal songs, which have become more and more numerous as her career moves forward, are the best.

Sympathetic without being sentimental, the lyricist explores what it might mean to be on the animals’ side, without coddling, cooing, or pretending to understand how they perceive the world. Case is as interested in common swarms of mollusks, mosquitoes, wasps, and sparrows as she is in charismatic megafauna like tigers and killer whales. And her songs often call us face-to-face with our own cultural hypocrisies and confusions around animals.

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Case steers clear of the pathetic fallacy, avoiding ascribing human feelings to animals in favor of a more nebulous, uncertain striving toward kinship. As Case told the A.V. Club in 2009: “I think that the more human you realize you are, the more of an animal you realize you are—meaning that it’s okay to not have all the answers.”

“I’m an Animal”, from Middle Cyclone (2009)

A fierce pledge of allegiance to the animal kingdom, in which Case draws from her identification with beasts to call for an unashamed, guileless approach to life.

“The Tigers Have Spoken,” from The Tigers Have Spoken (Live) (2004)

On her 2004 live album, Case introduces this song by making a modest proposal: We should feed human children (who, after all, are “loud and messy”) to tigers who no longer have habitats. That spirit of dark playfulness pervades this song, whose unbearably sad subject matter—the killing of a tiger who’s gone mad after a life of captivity—contrasts with a chorus that sounds like a playground jump-rope chant. “They shot the tiger on his cha-ain/They shot the tiger on his cha-ain,” the refrain goes, daring you not to sing along. 

“People Got a Lotta Nerve,” from Middle Cyclone (2009)

As with “The Tigers Have Spoken,” this is a singsong nursery rhyme about terrible things. In the animated music video above, which is thick with animals, two girls riding on the back of an ostrich even play a hand-clapping game along with the chorus, driving the point home.

Why should we be surprised, Case asks, when a killer whale in captivity “[Pins] you down to the bottom of the tank/Where you can’t turn around/It took half your leg and both your lungs”? This song came out before the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World, which is the topic of the recent documentary Blackfish. Although Brancheau’s death was by no means the first of such attacks, when the incident was made public this song ended up sounding strangely prescient.  

“Fox Confessor Brings The Flood,” from Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2006)

The song’s narrator experiences a sense of displacement as she drives home past flooded fields: “How can people not know what beauty this is?” she asks, a question that places her somehow outside of the human race. “I’ve taken it for granted my whole life/Since the day I was born.” The  “fox confessor” here is a metaphor—a trickster figure from a fairy tale, who refuses consolation, demanding that the narrator reconcile herself with her “blues.”

A song full of birds: a magpie to wake you up, a thieving mockingbird to console you in the middle of the night, and a vulture to mock your human pretensions at immortality. This is one of the more human-centric of the Case animal songs, with birds acting as symbols rather than agents of their own will, but it makes up for that with the glorious verse about vultures and mortality: “The vulture wheels and dives/Something on the thermals yanked his chain/He smelled your boring apex/Rotting on the train tracks/He laughed under his breath because you thought that you could outrun sorrow.”

“Dirty Knife,” from Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2006)

One of Case’s creepiest animal songs, this one, like “Magpie to the Morning,” uses animals to illustrate human emotional states. A madman retreats to a derelict house, where he sees “wolves that eddy out the corner of his eyes” (an indelible lyric that I remember every time my absent feline appears in my peripheral vision). Feral cats surround his home, stalking through the wild grass, and his “blood runs crazy” just like theirs.

 “Red Tide,” from Middle Cyclone (2009)

A portrait of a time and place—somewhere in the Pacific Northwest?—where broken animal remnants are interwoven with the human landscape: “Dog hair in the heater … and seabirds choked on fishing line.” Humanity’s chainsaws and car wrecks dominate the scene, but, Case notes with a sense of defiant celebration, that’s not the whole story: “The red tide is over/The mollusks they have won.”

 “Maybe Sparrow,” from Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2006)

The song’s protagonist tries to warn a sparrow against hawks, and fails, seeing the bird “limp beneath my feet/dusty eyes cold as clay.” The sparrow, being a bird, couldn’t “hear her warning,” but Case’s swooping voice memorializes it in song, celebrating the “notes that hung so effortless/with the rise and fall of sparrow’s breast” by singing along: “La di da di da di da.”

A hearty salute to the blackfooted ferret, extirpated from the American Great Plains for years and recently reintroduced after flourishing in a captive breeding program. Happy for the ferrets, Case nonetheless warns of the fickleness of human favor: “Enjoy your time on the list/Let us know that you’ll be missed/Cause people have a way of forgetting/People have a way of forgetting.” 

 “Marais La Nuit,” from Middle Cyclone (2009)

This is a 30-minute track of frog-song, recorded on Case’s farm. Nine times out of 10, you’ll skip past it in frustration. The tenth, you’ll take a minute to lean back in your chair and listen to the tapestry of their small voices.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Philadelphia. Send her an email or follow her on Twitter.