Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
When I heard the proposed title of Neko Case’s new album in an NPR piece about the record’s progress, I said, “please don’t change that title” under my breath three times fast. Nothing grates on me more than a boring album title. Still, no matter what Case decided to title the record, it would still be the most powerful and disarming work she’s crafted to date. These days it feels so rare to fall head over heels for a record on the first spin through and I was in love with this album before it was even done playing. There’s something really nice about having faith in an artist. While I felt her previous LP Middle Cyclone was a bit overstuffed, the songs were almost exclusively gems. This time around, Case is straight-up lean. The songs are brutally concise, honed like twelve little daggers that cut straight into that part of your gut that causes such exclamations as, “Holy shit, this is a fucking masterpiece.”
Neko Case stopped dying her hair. At least that’s what my wife said. She’s a Case superfan and our romance has roots in a New Pornographers mix I made for her four years ago (heavy on the Case-led jams). She says she read an interview about the hair-dying thing. It seems fitting; as if Case is somehow stripping away the aura of ineffable cool that has always surrounded her. Watching Case on stage the words “flame-haired chanteuse” always immediately come to mind. You get the impression that there’s a personal sea change at work, and while The Worse Things Get… is different from any other record Case has produced, it’s the deeply personal autobiographical content that causes the record to hit harder than any other album in Case’s discography. It’s not small feat, considering that Case is one of the strongest songwriters currently working. Maybe ever. I’d be willing to say that Neko Case is just as talented as Bob Dylan, and that you might as well start etching her name on the plaque at the pantheon of greats right now.
This thing is a lyrical blockbuster. You could throw a rock and hit a brilliant line (“I only ever held one love/ Her name was Mary Anne/ She died having a child by her brother/ He died because I murdered him” on one of the album’s rare fictional story-songs “Bracing for Sunday” is one of my favorites) but the music and the production is the sort of stuff that leaves you breathless. The specter of M Ward’s guitar work, the deftness of Kelly Hogan’s backing vocals which feel as much a part of Case’s records as Case herself, and the gorgeous idiosyncrasy of Case’s melodies that play so perfectly with the words she wraps around them. There’s the a capella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” which details maternal neglect in such terrifically sad detail I wept the first time I heard it. And then there are the horns that push the magisterial closer “Ragtime” into the stratosphere and leaves your head spinning. There’s the hushed tenderness of “I’m From Nowhere” and the sadness embedded in long distance romance in “Calling Cards” and then there’s the rollicking attack on gender identity “Man” and the vibrant pop majesty of “City Swans,” which is the sweetest, most tuneful track on the record. There is no dud. Where Middle Cyclone’s b-sides were as much a part of the fabric as gems like “This Tornado Loves You” and “I’m an Animal.” Like the best albums, when The Worse Things Get… ends it feels like it’s over all too soon and immediately warrants another listen. And another. And another.
"I'm From Nowhere"