Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight…
Released: September 3, 2013
Label: Anti Recordings
Producer: Tucker Martine
01 Wild Creatures
02 Night Still Comes
04 I’m From Nowhere
05 Bracing for Sunday
06 Nearly Midnight, Honolulu
07 Calling Cards
08 City Swans
10 Local Girl
11 Where Did I Leave That Fire?
In 1994, Case moved to Vancouver, to attend the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. While attending school she played drums in several local bands, including the Del Logs, the Propanes, the Weasels, Cub (which featured I Am Spoonbender‘s Robynn Iwata), and Maow. All of these bands were local punk groups except for Cub and The Weasels, which Case described as a “country music supergroup“. When she got her Bachelor of Fine Arts she had to go back to Washington because she lost her student visa eligibility. Then, thankfully, someone convinced her that she could sing! So before leaving Canada she did some vocals for The New Pornographers‘ first album. I guess that’s why they refer to her as an “honorary Canadian”!
To have spent all this time and making genre definitions constraining for her marvelous voice, to call what she does “country”, would be an understatement on the grandest of scales. Neko Case doesn’t only sing! Something sacred takes place when she opens her mouth, surprising and shaking you by its sheer force. All her solo records, beside being increasingly more pop-oriented as the years go by, (by the way resulting in one of the worlds greatest power pop bands of the decade, The New Pornographers) her records take a twist towards the darker, the weirder and the more surreal. From the idiosyncratic orchestration, to her uncanny knack for choosing protagonists (tornadoes and prisoners e.g.), to the timbre-esque punch of her voice. “If I puked up some sonnets,” she sings in one of the most quotable verses of her endlessly quotable new album, “Would you call me a miracle?” Free verse upon free verse this album is definetely one of her most uncompromising.
The “driving force” (if i can put it like that) behind this records is the rough patch she went through during the last couple of years. She lost her grandmother (with whom she was close), and then both of her parents (with whom she was not), and as a result sunk into a depression, which she begun to talk about in various interviews. “It was physically debilitating,” she told The Guardian recently. “You’re just in this murk. And you’re with other humans but you lose all your human skills and it’s just like you’re in this plastic bag and you can’t quite connect with people.” That’s why The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You feels so cathartic. It’s something between a memento, an autobiography, a self-portrait and a cleansing of a dark period in her life. Autobiographical because, Neko Case has always been more of a storyteller than a songwriter in her albums. And on this record she finally turned herself into the protagonist. Resulting in her most potent album yet.
The songs are brilliantly shaped into catching the listener’s ear and holding that interest until the end of each of her beautiful tracks, without boring the listener in the process. Each one is welcomed and then graciously and gracefully takes a bow before leaving, like a polite and, of course, welcome guest in your house who knows when not to overstay his welcome. From her minimal “Afraid”, to the bittersweet “Calling Cards”, her voice can sound both devastatingly scene-creating and beautifully opalescent. The brilliant song that I keep coming back to though is “Night Still Comes“. I cringe whenever she shouts “you never held it at the right angle”.
When the leading single “Man” came out first, before the rest of the record, my first thought was that she might have retreated to her previous record Middle Cyclone. So what I did was play the previous album once again. Cyclone couldn’t hold a candle to “Man”, that much was true. “I’m a man/ That’s what you raised me to be,” she taunts like a shit-talking prizefighter. “Fat-fingered bullies were no match for me/ I still taste them in my teeth”, she shouts sounding like an unleashed, untamed feral creature, at the same time struggling with what it means to be a woman in this patriarchy ruled world where such a thing as feminism and femininity need to have a name.
The “strong, independent woman” is a cliché that society often paints in black and white, but Case’s take on the subject is a portrait of a lot more than 50 shades of gray. She has more questions than statements about such truths as womanhood, strength, power and freedom. She has this way of balancing the concept of her album with humor. “I was surprised when you called me a lady,” she sings on “I’m From No Where”, a subdued, acoustic comedown following “Man”, “‘Cause I’m still not so sure that’s what I wanna be.”
The Worse Things Get packs an emotion up-and-down punch throughout its 12 tracks. But its most heart wrenching moments is when Case takes up a rather more personal subject: Motherhood. “Wild Creatures” has an intrepid air about it (“I’m not fighting for your freedom/ I am fighting to be wild”) until it ends on a minor-key revelation: “There’s no mother’s hands to quiet me.” This particular absence of a mother hovers all over the record, especially in the first five tracks, building up to the beautifully and masterfully crafted, stunning a capella piece “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”. It is the most emotionally packed track in the entire album (and probably her entire career). The song tells the story of a mother Case saw screaming at a child in an airport in Hawaii– “Get the fuck away from me!/ Why don’t you ever shut up?”– and as she sings them she slathers the mother’s words in reverb, the echo poignantly suggesting ripple effects they’ll have on the kid’s psyche. “Honolulu” hits like a shot to the gut. Case writes the song as an open letter to the neglected child (“Don’t you ever shut up, kid/ Please have your say”) and amidst the arrangement’s negative space, her voice is a thick blanket in the shivering cold.
If I ever got to meet Case the first thing I would congratulate her on would be the fact that she handles topics like depression and parental neglect head on, with a general tone of resilience and quiet fearlessness. The album ends with two triumphant track. The first, “Where Did I Leave That Fire” begins with a sparse, post-rock arrangement that builds up to a powerful and “full frontal attack” midtempo ballad about feeling he magic having returned. Then a victory song comes on called “Ragtime” carrying a pop-esque air around it that only one’s biggest of accomplishments might have. “I’ll reveal myself invincible soon,” as the rest of the orchestral arrangements around her agree.
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You is Neko Case’s greatest work till now. Eccentric and emotional, creating a stage above “maturity”. Which for Neko Case means has not meant putting out that fire that she sings so evocatively about chasing.
“Night Still Comes”: