For a while between 2009’s Middle Cyclone and now the release of The Worse Things Get… life for Neko Case felt very much like being underwater: strangely isolated in a silent world, suffering from depression, coming to terms with the death of her Grandmother (they were close), and then both her parents (they were not), Case found herself unable to listen to music, unwilling to hear lyrics. Unexpectedly, it was ragtime jazz that helped bring her back out of herself, and in turn draw the music out of her.
For a while, songs refused to allow themselves to be nailed down, to form: Where Did I Leave That Fire was for a time not much more than an ambient thought process, with a vague theme of not being yourself, something Case herself was struggling with during the writing and recording process. The finished track opens with strange submarine noises, making explicit the underwater sensation. “I wanted so badly not to be me / I saw my shadow looking lost”, Case sings to a minimal backdrop. As the track ends, there’s a sense of Case finding herself, and her fire (“You can pick it up if you come down with ID”). And then it leads into album closer, Ragtime: “Reveal myself when I’m ready / I’ll reveal myself invincible soon”, Case sings, over rousing brass, and the album finishes on a note of tentative optimism.
The end comes all of 38 minutes after the start; The Worse Things Get… is not some long drawn out catharsis of an album. It may not have as many stories to tell as previous albums, and perhaps no single song reaches out and shakes you like Middle Cyclone’s This Tornado Loves You, but lead single Man performs sterling barroom sing-a-long duties not unlike some of Cases’s work with The New Pornographers, while tracks like Calling Cards and Night Still Comes provide the familiar Neko Case template: lyrical deftness, soft melodies and hidden barbs.
Elsewhere Nearly Midnight, Honolulu recounts a straightforward tale of motherly unlove in a cappella (perfectly fine if you’re into the unaccompanied), and Afraid is a delicate cover of the Nico song. If you can get hold of the extended version of the album, you also get a quite beautiful version of Robyn Hitchcock’s Madonna of the Wasps, which is well worth seeking out.
All in all, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You is a beautiful release, in more than one sense of the word.