August 21, 2013

Neko Case - The Worse Things Get

Neko Case - The Worse Things Get - cover art
Neko Case’s latest album, the breathlessly titled The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, rests not a moment on the laurels of her prior record, Middle Cyclone, where Grammy ambitions and lauding reviews likely afforded more mainstream audience exposure.  As Middle Cyclone was hardly light years above her earlier releases, its greater fame evidenced a common phenomenon in which artists, after toiling for years in cult status, creating stellar works, suddenly produce a “breakthrough” release, indicating only that the gatekeepers of popular culture have finally caught up.

Now firmly ensconced in the wilderness of Vermont (though the album was recorded at locations in the Northwest, Southwest and east coast), an Emily Carr painting title proudly tattooed across her arms, The Worse Things Get reveals itself as the product of a solitary, defiant soul, giving equal time to facing painful and happy memories, and finding similar strength in each.

Written during a time of personal loss, the record is not even slightly weepy or self-pitying as it traverses a bevy of styles, from “Man’s” New Pornographers-revved late-Seventies power pop to the near-Gospel tinges of "Night Still Comes," passing the alt-singer-songwriter musings of “I’m From Nowhere” along the way.

The thick, disparate stew of influences can take several spins to get your ears around (Neko herself indicated the tunes were slow to reveal themselves), but the pacing through track ordering is pitch perfect, the shifting moods and tempos leading naturally to “Ragtime’s" near-anthemic brass-backed closing release.

Sporting some of the purest pipes in the business, able to command a rock lyric as easily as caress a country ballad with an arresting lilt and twang, over time Neko’s ability to add shading and dynamics to the vocals has steadily grown -- though she’s still more likely to bowl you over than sneak up from behind.

Though Case’s trademark smartly-written lyrics suggest, rather than bluntly hammer, gender roles, identity and/or “girl power” are frequent themes here, as employed in “Man” (“I’m a man . . . the treehouse cannot support me”), as is self-reliance and motivation (Ragtime’s  “I'll reveal myself invincible soon”).  Even the choice of a lone cover, a stark, spare rendition of Nico’s “Afraid,” is telling, with words that push against the pressure to “have someone else's will as your own” with a pep-talk (“you are beautiful and you are alone;” “banish the faceless, reward your grace”).

“Night Still Comes,” with oblique references to Boreal forests, Masons and pharaohs, is lyrically top-notch, asking “Did they poison my food?  Is it cause I'm a girl?  If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me ‘a miracle’?” before a memorable chorus with mysterious implications: “You never held it at the right angle.”  Is the tune about historical treatment of women, could “right angle” refer to the Masons' square and compass logo, which could be seen as man’s attempt to harmonize the physical with the spiritual -- or, would a closer, more playful look at words in the title, along with “I revenge myself all over myself” suggest other (formerly) forbidden pleasures?  No matter, just another example of a wry, elliptical Case lyric adding unique richness to the listening experience.

Are there negatives?  “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” recounting an unfortunate eavesdropped conversation between a mother and daughter, while admirable, doesn't cry out for repeat listens.  And it does seem at times Case, who self-produced, reached back to earlier efforts to cop a particular sound, such as “Night Still Comes”/”City Swans” (Middle Cyclone) or “Bracing for Sunday”/”Wild Creatures” (Blacklisted) – certainly no crime though, in this case, it could make clear the slightly lower distinctiveness of some tracks vs. the best those albums had to offer.

Though perhaps that’s being unfair.  "Night Still Comes" compares favorably with her back catalog, and in truth just as many, perhaps more, of the tunes display a 70s-80s alternative-pop lineage.  Despite the intentional stylistic variety, one has the impression The Worse Things' components were assembled in similar fashion as scenes in a novelette --  in support of an overarching theme or plot line, as opposed to stand-alone, singular entries, as for a short story anthology.

Though this is hardly Case’s version of “The Wall,” the good news, from an artistic standpoint, is the tracks are more likely to be listened to en masse as a “CD” grouping, rather than purchased as one-off 99c Mp3 hits, though from a marketing perspective the lack of an obvious radio staple means the task is tougher, both for audience and record label.

But isn't that precisely what five strong studio efforts and endless touring have earned – the right, perhaps even responsibility, to challenge?

Art as exorcism (or at least confrontation) of personal demons could, in theory, make for difficult listening, but the clear message from these songs, taken as a whole, seems to be: a) courage and honestly in facing (and conquering) the past; b) individualism with a generosity of spirit in uncovering (and weaving) the future.

When combined with as rich and varied a musical palette as employed on The Worse Things Get, the result is more likely to enthrall close followers than repel casual fans.  Can there be any doubt Ms. Case is quite proud to have risked the latter to achieve the former?

Artist Website:  Neko Case
Label:  Anti-