Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight...
Neko Case's great new album continues to push her musical boundaries. But with her strong lyrical point of view and even stronger voice, pretty much anything she writes still sounds like a Neko Case song.
When Neko Case put out the excellent Fox Confessor Brings the Flood back in 2006, it was a logical endpoint of the gothic country sound she'd been using since the start of her solo career. That album was evocative, creepy and unsettling in all the right ways, with Case's smoky, melodic voice keeping everything anchored and tuneful no matter how dark and weird the music got. 2009's Middle Cyclone found Case opening up her sound a bit. Songs such as "This Tornado Loves You" and "People Got a Lotta Nerve" brought in rock and pop influences that finally seemed to reflect the decade she'd spent recording and touring with power-pop heroes the New Pornographers. But the album wasn't a wholesale change, as many of the tracks, particularly "Prison Girls", ended up sounding as dark, gothic and country as anything Case had ever done.
Case's latest album, with the long but interesting title The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, makes Middle Cyclone seem, in retrospect, like a transitional record. The Worse Things Get features some of the most upbeat and rocking songs that Case has ever done under her own name. But it also manages to weave in all the elements that are hallmarks of Case's albums. There are still the idiosyncratic lyrics involving animals and/or animal-like behavior, dashes of classic country and above all, Case's always-gorgeous singing.
The album starts with a pair of strong songs, "Wild Creatures" and "Night Still Comes". The former is a mid-tempo, minor-key country-rock track that opens with the lines "When you catch a light / You look like your mother," followed closely by "When you catch a light / There's a flash of wild creature." Just like that, the listener is back in Case's peculiar but fascinating world, where the stories always have a particular viewpoint and the music doesn't do what you'd expect. In this case, the chorus hits right at the midpoint of the song, followed by a lush piano solo and a chorus repetition. And then the song just ends. "Night Still Comes" opens as a slow-paced torch song waltz, but zags at the chorus, when the music opens into a widescreen singalong, complete with echoing harmony vocals. Fellow New Pornographer A.C. Newman's voice is clearly audible in those harmonies along with Case's longtime compatriot Kelly Hogan.
The openers are essentially par for the course on a Neko Case record, but third track and first single "Man" is all sardonic, confrontational lyrics and furious power-pop. Over galloping drums and chiming guitars courtesy of M. Ward, Case declares that "I'm a man / That's what you raised me to be / I'm not an identity crisis / This was planned." Adding to the aggression, the song is periodically punctuated by short bursts of heavily distorted guitar noise and Ward throws in three short guitar solos that each use completely different tones. As a statement against pigeonholing, it's incredibly strong, and it helps that the song is also hugely fun. Hearing Case sing "I am the man in the fucking moon / 'Cause you didn't know you didn't know what a man was / Until I showed you" is just awesome.
Case doesn't try to replicate that ferocity elsewhere on the album, but she finds another outlet for rage and sympathy on the bracing "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu". Essentially the song is one of those anecdotes about terrible people you see while driving or at the airport, but put into a scathing indictment. Case tells the story of waiting at a bus stop in Honolulu when she saw a mother shout at her daughter "Get the fuck away from me! / Why don't you ever shut up!" in the starkest terms possible, with just her voice and well-placed harmony. The rest of the song finds Case essentially recording the incident for posterity, saying "One day, when you ask yourself / Did it really happen? / You won't believe it / But yes it did," while also declaring that the mother did not love the daughter.
The deceptively upbeat-sounding "Bracing for Sunday" is about small-town people who party hard on Friday and have to face church on Sunday. It also contains this rueful gem, delivered matter of factly: "I only ever had one love / Her name was Mary Anne / She died having a child by her brother / He died because I murdered him." "City Swans" is also bright and upbeat, so much so that it could easily slot into a New Pornographers record were it not for the country-style guitar solo. The simple chorus "I can't look at you straight on / You're made from something different and I know" has a great melody and backbeat that makes it an instant singalong.
The Worse Things Get wraps up with a pair of interesting, different-sounding songs. "Where Did I Leave That Fire" begins with over a minute of what sounds like submarine sound effects, with various pings and plops. A bit of atonal piano and low, arco bass complete the unsettling sound of the song, until Case starts singing and brings it back to earth. A rumination on dying and the experience of leaving your body, the song concludes with a man telling Case that her fire has been found and that she "Can pick it up if you come down with ID." "Ragtime" finishes the record with a horn-laden groove that begins with Case musing that snow always falls sideways in cities and seems to come out of streetlights. As the song reaches its climax and outro, Case locks into the horn melody and sings along, repeating, "I am one and the same / I am peaceful and strange."
One advantage of Case being "peaceful and strange" and generally unique is that she can release an album like this and most listeners won't bat an eye. Only about half of The Worse Things Get really sounds like anything she's done before under her own name. But she's also been fronting a power-pop band for the entirety of the 21st century. With her strong lyrical point of view and even stronger voice, pretty much anything she writes and performs sounds like a Neko Case song. The Worse Things Get is another excellent album from Case on a resumé that's full of excellent albums.