Album Review: Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
September 3, 2013 in Album Reviews
By Zachary Kaczmarek
Story telling has always been a strong suit for the confident Neko Case, whether the lyrics are a variation of her own life or fictitious tales of being unapologetically forthright. Her last release, Middle Tornado, played with the idea of her love being manifested as a reckless force of nature, with her vocals also taking a similar form as her untamable voice seemed to level anything that stood in its path. Creative metaphors seem to roll off the tongue easy for Case as she transforms failed loved and self-doubt into genuine Americana style tales. With each successive release the alt-country veteran has transitioned from writing sad stories that kept her personal life at a safe distance to constructing cathartic lyrics aim straight for the heart.
Although the title of her latest record reads much like the verbose album titles that Fiona Apple is known for, it begins very much like a Neko Case album should, with a strong opening track. “Wild Creatures” isn’t necessarily the standout on the album, but the way it slowly eases into a deceptive melancholic pace before shifting to a convicting frantic mood with hazy distortion and underlying finger picked melodies provides the perfect introduction. When compared to Middle Cyclone, the demeanor seems slightly grimmer, and incredibly vulnerable, even by Case’s standards. But in contrast to her candid introspection that she allows the listener to see, she also gives some of her boldest and most indomitable performances. LP number six for Case, allows all the seething frustration to be properly expunged from her mind and to repave the way with brighter aspirations. The track “Man” which focuses on bucking gender-norms, is a prime example of Case’s refusal to play the victim, with lyrics that do away with the idea of being a weak daughter/girlfriend/damsel in distress. M. Ward of She and Him lends a hand on hand guitar shredding relentlessly, his intensity equaling perturbed lines like “I am the man in the fucking moon, ‘Cause you didn’t know what a man was til I showed you”. Case runs into a lot of uncertainty on The Worse Things Get… and although she may not be certain who she is trying to be, she sure as hell won’t let anyone else lecture her or attempt to box her in.
As the album moves forward in forming a strong persona that is above any labels or criticism, the sound does the inverse, calling upon alternative twang from Case’s past that had a heavy presence on her early LP’s like The Virginian and Furnace Room Lullaby. The soft somber “Calling Cards” paints a beautifully vivid picture of a classic open road narrative with soft country-folk guitar, telling of a love that that’s separated by highways and held together by payphone calls coast to coast. When lost or distraught, Case looks for the comforting familiar country sounds, something that is a saving grace and shines through on her finest moments.
The final sequence of songs on The Worse Things Get…, perhaps the best string of consecutive tracks on any Neko Case album, make no attempt to put up a wall or hide behind an irate false bravado, but rather simply breakdown and reveal the tension within. “Afraid”, one of her best songs to date, features Case softly consoling another over ominous tones and soft guitar picking, which could be interpreted as a song talking herself through troubles from a third person perspective. Case finds solace in the phrase “you are beautiful and you are alone”, and her solution, or advice in the end is to “banish the faceless, rewatch your grace”. “Local Girl” shows off her fiery side and contempt for society in the ways that an honest young talent is distorted and the bright lights “blot out her face”. Case takes on somewhat of a strong mothering figure and expresses her disgusts with hypocrisy of mankind that wants to judge and ridicule, while failing to recognize internal flaws. The curtain closer “Ragtime”, offers an optimistic end with the bright echoing chords and a chorus of trumpets. Case’s final verse of the album, “Ragtime turning out the sun and moon, Its gravity is soothing, It winds me in a sleep cocoon, Reveal myself when I’m ready, I’ll reveal myself invincible soon”, sums up the inner struggle that The Worse Things Get… presents. There is an upside that can be appreciated, but Case has to venture to hell and back to fully realize it.