Singer/songwriter Neko Case is a prolific tweeter. However, The sassy chanteuse is clearly not concerned with the tweet-ability of her new long-windedly titled album. Then again, the indie alt-rock punk this-that-and-the-other genre artist has enjoyed cult success over the years while flying under the mainstream radar.
Neko Case is a storyteller. Her album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood drew on Eastern European folktales. The critical hit album Middle Cyclone, which peaked at number three on the Billboard charts, personified a twister who falls in love. Most artists start with their own story when they create, but Case has largely avoided getting too personal in her work… until now. Her latest and 6th studio album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, is Case’s most intimate and revealing to date.
Case has been more frank in the press speaking about the album’s themes than letting the album speak for itself. In a Rolling Stone interview, she said it was made in a time of depression and is a lot about grieving the deaths of her parents, grandmother and friends. Case has also been extremely open in a series of NPR interviews that followed her in the process of making the album.
Mourning is a process. Mourning is also a celebration; somber and sorrowful – a reflection that can go in many directions. Case uses the new album to go through some of those stages on various subjects.
Parts of the album could be the artist’s mourning for herself, such as the song “I’m from Nowhere,” and for long-ago love in “Calling Cards.” One of the songs most noted by critics, an a cappella midpoint “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” begins with Case singing to a child she saw at a bus stop. Echoing vocals recounting a mother’s verbally abusive words to the child pull listeners’ jaw-drop lever. Case has been open about her parents not wanting her, (“I should have been an abortion,” she’s said). Perhaps this is also her song of mourning to herself as a child.
Mourning can come in the form of searching for something lost along the way, like in “Where Did I Leave that Fire.” With its submarine pings and ghostly ambience, a lantern-lit search in seemingly underwater woods for the misplaced is punctuated with Case’s signature humor about how it might turn up in some abstract cosmic lost and found. She is still a master of the metaphors and poetic imagery that have given her songs so much re-playability.
Case told NPR she couldn’t listen to music during her depression (except ragtime, commemorated in a namesake track). She may have had to stare a little harder to find the pulse to put pen to paper, but Case never lost that fire. Or, maybe the process of making this new album helped her build a new one.
Case’s latest is more reflective, but remains just as strong as previous work. The album isn’t all down tempo with songs like “Man,” “Bracing for Sunday,” and “City Swan,” familiarly galloping, and the strutting track “Ragtime.” She doesn’t lack for powerhouse support with backup from her other band, The New Pornographers, friend and frequent collaborator Kelly Hogan, indie darling M. Ward, and other notables.
The characteristic solid clarity of Case’s vocals are still there, but The Worse Things Get is a distinctly quieter album. It’s personal in nature without prentention and still listenable and relatable, never bordering on being an all-out downer. I find Case still strikes a balance between poetry and detached storytelling that’s still full of emotion. For this particular collection of songs, I imagine Case playing each chord and note on her heartstrings, holding the words a little bit closer, eyes closed, almost as if singing a comforting lullaby to herself.
Embarrassing fanboy back story.
I’m a little biased. Neko Case is one of my favorite singers/songwriters. Case’s anthology has become a staple in my life soundtrack life since I started listening to her 13 years ago. Case accompanied me on many 3-hour drives between college and my parents’, narrating the East Texas scenery of open highway and backroads cutting through stormy fields.
Discovering her music was pure chance. Her song “Furnace Room Lullaby” was playing on some generic country music channel in my high school art class (I think I was working on a pointillism mockingbird). At that point, I’d already given up contemporary country music. But her soaring and diving voice was different from the commercial artists in rotation. So I perked up and demanded that my older, cooler brother buy her album for me. So, he did.
I was 18 the first time I saw her perform live. I drove six hours to Austin, Texas. Case had said in an interview she grew up listening to a neighbor’s LP of Bessie Griffin and the Gospel Pearls, but hadn’t ever been able to find it again. So, I tracked down a copy on eBay a couple of years before that first live encounter.
Bessie and the Pearls went with me to the state capitol. The bouncer, smiling and seeing I was clearly in love, said “sure” to my nervous request to give it to her. Case was hanging out backstage with her band, a little caught off-guard to be approached by an awkward adolescent sheepishly holding out an LP, unsuccessfully trying to explain what he was giving her. “Uh. Thanks,” she said still not quite sure what was happening. I just slinked back to the crowd and waited for the show, certain in my insecure paranoia they were then discussing the weird stalker kid with the record.