Neko Case – The Worse Things Get…
As album titles go, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, doesn’t really inspire confidence. It’s almost Fiona Apple-like length, and reads like a teenager’s Facebook update. Luckily, Neko Case managed to assuage many of my fears about her way with words, right from the opening lines of the first song: “When you catch the light, You look like your mother”.
The album begins in a rather restrained manner, but things kick into gear with the up-tempo “Man”. If you’ve unfamiliar the concept of “Genderfuck”, then this song will give you an excellent primer. With its loud guitars and a Pixies-esque middle-eight, it’s something entirely new from Neko.
Case seems most alive on these fast-paced tracks, such as “Bracing for Sunday”, which is a murder ballad about the killing of an incestuous rapist. So I’m sure the defence would argue for “justifiable homicide ballad”. She has confirmed in an interview that it’s not based on a true story, thank god. “City Swans” is a song that achieves the impossible: it’s a Country/Rock crossover that would be suitable for radio states in both Red and Blue states.
Of the more subdued songs, “Calling Card” is a standout. It brilliantly captures the longing for loved ones that all touring musicians felt in the pre-Skype era. “I’ve got calling cards / from twenty years ago”, are the heart-breaking final lines.
As strong as the album is, there are a few missteps. The a cappella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” is meandering to the point of shapelessness. Case’s songs are often criticised for being little more than showcases for her immensely powerful voice, and singing a cappella seems like the logical and misguided conclusion of that.
My other criticism would be that both lyrically and melodically, Neko mines too many seams that she has mined before. The melodies of some of the songs sound like they were lifted verbartim from her previous album. Her lyrics include many allusions to wildlife, which as the resident of a Vermont farm is hardly surprising. But so common is this trope that someone made a list of the numerous animals she mentions in her songs.
Many of these criticisms can be forgiven because of the genre of music in which she’s working. Although she’s the darling of the indie-rock/NPR crowd, she remains a Country music artist at heart, and Country, by its nature, is not particularly diverse. If you changed it too much, it wouldn’t be Country anymore.
Neko Case is a unique artist who needs to be accepted not only on her own terms, but also on the terms of the genre in which she is working. Within the confines of this fiercely-conservative type of music, she remains a shining, progressive light.