Neko Case has come a long way. From New Pornographers member to solo singer-songwriter with a sly sense of humor, she’s quickly shone as one of North America’s most charismatic talents. While her solo records Middle Cyclone (2010) and Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2007) both saw much deserved success for their slightly out of step melodies and glittering vocals, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, Case’s country-twinged full-length dotted with fluttering Americana guitar work from M. Ward, is her most personal album to date. Long-recognized as a witty jokester who’s not afraid of a quality rauchy jibe or semi-crass stage banter, the time between Middle Cyclone and The Worse Things Get had taken her on a reeling turn. Battling depression while also dealing with the death of her grandmother and both of her parents, Case has put her soul on stage for all to see.
Case explores the difference in men and women’s reactions to personal trauma, evidenced most in the shit-kicking single “Man,” a gender-questioning acerbic treat that challenges expectations and reality (“I’m not your identity crisis”), while hollering cheekily with her well-honed skill of emphasizing life’s moments of irony, “I am the man in the fucking moon.” But one of the The Worse Things Get‘s most catalyzing tracks is the acapella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” a song that tells of a mother crassly chiding her young daughter for singing (“Won’t you ever shut the fuck up?”), a real-life moment Case witnessed at an airport that reminded her of her own upbringing with her late, emotionally distant mother: “They won’t believe you when say/ My mother, she did not love me.”
A gradual downward slide had lead to the grief-stricken “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” on which she sings to the album’s thickest theme: “I wanted so badly not to be me.” A cover of Nico’s 1970 “Afraid” features keyboards from Marc Ribot, and My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel whips through the guitars on the sentimental “City Swans.” Howe Gelb, Jim James and members of the New Pornographers, Mudhoney, Calexico and Los Lobos also make appearances on the album, yet it is Neko Case’s raw vocal power and warbling emotion that dominate the album’s sound. She is a complete person with passion and fervor, but also someone who’s experienced loss and sadness. And The Worse Things Get exemplifies all of these human emotions and flaws in a powerfully open manner.
A listless cloud of heartbreak penetrates every crack and many moments teeter on the maudlin, but The Worse Things Get has fight, too. Finding comfort in her moments of disquiet, Case often found solace in jaunty ragtime music, displayed on horn-laced “Ragtime”: “I will feel myself invincible soon.”