Review Summary: I'll reveal myself when I'm ready, I'll reveal myself invincible soon.
It’s never really mattered what Neko Case has been going on about, so long as that Voice is in play. Her shit
kicking, take-no-prisoners vocal prowess has always been her defining trait, tied up inextricably with a combustible personality and a very real vibe that this is an artist who will do anything, anytime, anywhere – Northwestern punk groups, honky-tonk country standards, power-pop deans the New Pornographers. It’s a Voice that demands superlatives. Case as an artist is even more impressive when you consider that the Voice had no formal training, discovered almost accidentally while Case jumped between ‘90s punk groups, yet here she is, on her sixth proper solo album, still doing whatever the hell she feels like. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
is a typical Neko Case album; that is, it’s a splash of cold water in the face, a punch to the groin, another unexpected and uniquely fulfilling performance from an artist who has never stayed in any one place too long.
ended four years ago with a half-hour-long nature recording, a typically Neko pun on an album wrapped up in the relationship between man and the elements. The Worse Things Get
opens with the hesitant lurch of “Wild Creatures,” Case lamenting “I have no mother’s hands to quiet me,” and finishes with Case proudly brandishing a torch to the darkness on “Ragtime”: “I’ll reveal myself invincible,” the sound of trumpets blaring like a hundred-gun salute. Case has always been a colorful songwriter, able to weave tales and relationships and break them back down with an uncanny eye for detail and a perspective heavy with empathy. To hear this same eye turned towards her own life, which turned turbulent and depressed – Case lost both her parents as well as her grandmother – in the intervening years between Middle Cyclone
and today, is a revelation. The Worse Things Get
bruises and stings, an unflinching look at Case’s vulnerabilities and the deep, dull pain that goes into losing family. But it also realizes that bruises fade and that stings heal, and in its varied textures and wild soundscape is an artist sharing a catharsis for everyone to hear.
The primal energy that has always electrified her voice and powered her prior records is still well in evidence here. “Man” flips the gender roles with a viciousness that would castrate the unprepared – “cause you didn’t know what a man was / until I showed you” – packaged subversively into a rollicking bar-rock song with controlled bursts of guitar that sound like electrical shocks courtesy of M. Ward. For an album so precariously balanced between an emotional wreck and middle-finger-waving pride, though, it’s the uneven steps that are the best to tread. “Used a calling card at the pay phone from the other coast / just to tell how good it was to hear you in those songs you wrote / made me think there was something coming / really something worth waiting for / blah blah blah blah blah blah / they talk about,” Case sings on “Calling Cards,” strings and twinkling acoustics painting in the frayed edges and decaying connections that hold up a long-distance relationship. A cover of “Afraid” – Neko doing Nico – benefits from a spartan arrangement, placing those bloodied lyrics squarely under a harsh light, while ostensible torch song “Night Still Comes” would rather throw up than entertain the idea of Case doing her due diligence as a balladeer. “You never held it at the right angle” – the misconception is on the audience’s part, and Case has never been one to apologize.
The creepy echo chamber of “Where Did I Leave That Fire” is perhaps most illustrative of the mindset Case was in while recording. Case laments a loss (drive" love" family") made even more desperate set as it is amidst a disjointed landscape of piano motifs and growling skronks of guitar. Yet she resolves it with a classic wink: “six o’clock tomorrow a strange voice says to me / I do believe we have your fire lady / you can pick it up if you come down with ID.” More bizarre is “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” Case’s a capella ode to child abuse, removed in its observation but sort of thrilling in its emotional potency. Its position as the centerpiece of the album is no coincidence, yet the passivity is surprising; considering the way Case deals with hecklers at her shows makes one think an intervention and not a memorial would have made for a more memorable song. Yet it’s lovely in its simplicity and in Case’s full-throated declaration of support for an anonymous child.
Like the Dodos’ Carrier
, another recent album that took death and used it to illuminate something bigger, The Worse Things Get
is a listen that tears and breaks, an album defiant and loud as often as it is anxious and sad. Case does a fine job of cataloguing the grime that inevitably seeps into every person’s life, and the record’s mood reflects it, full of fitful arrangements and a mood that zips back and forth with the logic of a patient who has yet to refill their prescription. It’s this instability that also makes it her most relatable record, the kind that permeates deeper than earlier tales of tornadoes and lost widows. “There’s a wisdom that’s cold,” Case sings on “Ragtime,” that voice floating through a din of discordant orchestration, but it’s a lesson that’s strangely fulfilling. “I am one and the same / I am useful and strange,” Case finishes, and it’s a mantra that repeats as the clash and mess of the instruments fades away. The Voice is still standing at the end, of course, triumphant and proud.