Neko Case - The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Record Label - Anti-
Release Date - September 3, 2013
Murder ballads generally come with two different types of female protagonists. First, there's the naif. The woman whose sheer presence and purity destines her for death. Second, there's the gal with the checkered past. Both of these types are tropes--songwriting crutches that simplify for the sake of a good story. This being 2013, we should rightfully be beyond all these sorts of nonsense. People are the agents of culture and as Neko Case's latest The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You is another revelatory record in a career which has been based on fighting, usurping expectations, a sonorous voice, first-rate musicianship, astounding songwriting, and most of all a remarkable verve.
When 2009 brought Case's Middle Cyclone, I remarked on this blog that this record was the one where Case accepted her role as a force of nature. If that's the case, then here, four years later, she is at the height of her power. This album is, in fact, so good that it brings out the best in reviews as well. In Pitchfork's review, Lindsay Zoladz drops the most pithy and accurate sentence I've seen there in years: "Case has a moonbeam for a voice: imposing in timbre, opalescent in tone, and always surprising in its sheer force." This is one moment where, as the old quotation goes, writing about music is not like dancing about architecture. Instead, it helps us understand just how important music is.
Case, for her part, is always trying to foil expectations. The lead single from The Worse I Things Get... was the hard strumming "Man." For a songstress who revels in her femininity, the hard-charging tune was only enhanced by that moonbeam voice. More than anything, Case always seems to write from a changing perspective from the identity-crutch of "Man" to the honeyed chorus of "Night Still Comes" where Case seems to rebuke her listener--"You never held it at the right angle." Each track brings another angle, another perspective from Case. The plaintive cry of "I'm from Nowhere" sounding almost like Case's calling card. In being from "nowhere" she can go anywhere, including a new rendition of "Magpie from the Morning" from Middle Cyclone. But it's the confidence, the verve, and passion evinced on this record that places it a step (if not entire floor) above most songwriting today.
A key aspect of Case's incredible songs are her exquisite attention to detail from Fox Confessor's "I leave the part at 3am / alone thank God / with a valium from the bride / It's the devil I love" to The Worse Things Get..'s post-mortem tune "Where Did I Leave that Fire?" with its mundane and provocative image "I saw my shadow lookin' lost / checking it's pockets for some lost receipts / Where did I leave that fire?" The brilliance of her lyrics arises not from poetic flourish or sarcastic commentary but incapsulating contradiction often with the quotidian set against a mysterious force or figure. Even the more self-assured characters that Case creates (see "Man") it's the juxtaposition of her narrator's voice which opens up these spaces for poetry to emerge. And in her more melancholic and nostalgic moments, like "Calling Cards," where Case carves an image of longing ("I used a calling card in a pay phone / from the other coast / Just to tell you how good it was to hear you / In those songs you wrote") to be undercut by "Blah blah blah, b-blah blah blah / they talk about, oh, oh." Here, she's acutely aware of the powerful music which ebbs under her voice. It doesn't matter what she says, everything is underneath.
And this is, perhaps, the greatest aspect of this album. It's musically flawless. Case has long had a first-rate backing band and drawn some of music's heaviest hitters to her cause. Here, we're treated by guest spots from Jim James, M. Ward, and A.C. Newman. But, it isn't just the quality of musicians. Though, let me add that the chorus of "Night Still Comes" features harmonies which rival those of M. Ward's harmoniously-ridiculous "Chinese Translation," which features Case and Jim James. It's the instrumentation, production and song styles that she takes on. The a cappella "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu" strips down almost everything but Case and her backup, Kelly Hogan. It's one of the most biting songs of the year. In brutal simplicity, Case recounts the story of a real incident when she heard a mother lay into her child near the airport, telling the child "Get the fuck away from me / Why don't you ever shut up." Amid the layers, expansive range of styles and instruments employed on The Worse Things Get... this song, with Case's moonbeam vocals shining through, seems to encapsulate how great her music by stripping everything away. "And I'm sorry," Case sings, "because it happens everyday." Here, again, we see the contrast bring out the best as Case places this unspeakable act against its unfortunate everydayness. It's a reminder, as so many of these songs seem culled from, churned out of, and wrought from Case's own memory and recent dark periods, that the experience of great works of art like this are not to pull us away from life, but to draw us closer to it even when filled with gorgeous desperation.