Neko Case: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
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Neko Case is a titan of indie music. As one of the lead vocalists of band turned super-group The New Pornographers, she has been central to some of the best power pop of the new century. While she worked as a solo artist prior to the formation of The New Pornographers, she has become best known in her solo work over the release of her last three albums, 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, 2009’s Middle Cyclone, and today’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. The newest album is a welcome combination of many of Case’s previous styles, from power-pop that wouldn’t sound out of place with The New Pornographers, quietly balladic folk that fits more with her former solo albums, and occasional dalliances with gospel rock and punk influences. It is a strong album from one of America’s best singer-songwriters, more confident than ever in her ability to blow us all away.

The Worse Things Get is easily Case’s most personal album, written at a time of great crisis and depression for the artist. Her grandmother, whom she was very close to, and her parents, whom she was not, died and the Case plunged into herself. What she surfaces with is a combination of empowering and wise, part confessional about the delicacies of being human, and part examination of the inner strength that allows us all to triumph, even when things are at their darkest. On penultimate track “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” Case sings “I wanted so badly not to be me,” yet the greatest thing about the album is how completely herself she is throughout.

Opening track “Wild Creatures” is a lush ode to the subtle beauties in day-to-day life, a song that begins delicately and builds to a torrent, a searching examination of power and reticence. On “Night Still Comes,” Case discusses anti-depressants, the anxieties of being a woman in a man’s world, and bemoans “You never held it at the right angle,” singing to us as much as herself. First single “Man” has gender on the brain as well, but it’s a propulsive rocker with a punk mentality. It’s a wonderfully subversive, absurdly catchy rock song with the perfect amount of bite. When case sings, in its opening lines, “I’m a man, that’s what you raised me to be, I’m not an identity crisis, this was planned,” its both satirical and tinged with the sort of fury that comes from a lifetime of experience. The song is so much damn fun, it can be hard to also recognize how smart and funny it is at the same time.

Also in the “so much damn fun” it hurts department is “Bracing for Sunday,” a fist-pumping rock song with a horn section that just won’t quit. Case can be so exhilarating on these tracks, so full of life and energy, that in lesser hands the album’s tonal shifts might be jarring. Tracks like “I’m From Nowhere,” a loneliness-tinged love letter to life on the road and “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” an a capella recollection of Case witnessing a mother berating her child at a bus stop. Case longs to tell the child that she loves him or her, that she saw what happen, and that the child should retain his or her voice. It’s a beautiful, sad song, as revelatory about Case’s own needs and insecurities as it is an inspiration to others.

When she cover’s Nico’s “Afraid,” its sparse and haunting, a curse to her own loneliness that seems to banish it. What follows is album standout “Local Girl,” Case’s own take on gospel-rock, a show stopping number that sees her at the top of her game as she belts out truths and seems to heal herself and the listener in the process. Any remaining darkness gives way to light on closing track “Ragtime,” as Case finds herself on the other side of her downward spiral, stronger, wiser, and better for the journey.

The Worse Things Get is perhaps Neko Case’s most instantly accessible album, a stellar collection of songs in various styles that flow together smartly and form an emotional journey even as they stand alone. Yet the album grows more potent with each listen, revealing hidden depths and clever turns of phrase. Case is still the hyper-literate jokester, the small town girl who can croon with the best of them, still soulful and sweet, clever and deep. And on The Worse Things Get she is more, a woman who has seen the darkness and chosen the light, and is now doing her best to serve as a beacon to those still lost in the night.

Grade: A-
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