Neko Case doesn’t make things easy on herself. Her voice is so powerful, nuanced and pure that if she turned her mind to it, she could probably become a megastar like Taylor Swift or Norah Jones and ride the mainstream to sell kajillions of records and fill stadiums across North America. Anyone who has heard her sing in Jakob Dylan’s latest touring band can attest to the chills that her voice can send up and down her listeners’ spines. As a songwriter and performer, Case could have decided to cut the troubling edges of her songs and settled into the type of quirky niche occupied by artists like k.d. Lang or Victoria Williams. But that would place too many limits on her restless imagination and the disparate musical styles she has always liked experimenting with—both as a solo artist and as a member of The New Pornographers. On her seventh outing, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, the vintage country sounds that carried some of her earlier albums have been downplayed as Case embraces indie rock, folk and ambient sounds. It’s an experiment that works—most of the time.
The 12 new songs on The Worse Things Get clock in at just over 38 minutes, leaving no room for filler or distractions. With a length equal to most old-school vinyl albums, it’s amazing to hear how many different approaches to communicating a lyric Case experiments with in such a compressed time frame. The effect is that The Worse Things Get is often not an easy record to listen to. Case approaches each song with such incredibly bristly, focused intensity that the album’s brevity works in its favor. Extraneous material would either overwhelm or dilute the power of the often difficult and troubling songs that make up the record with its themes of alienation, regret and the spoken and unspoken tensions brought by love. Neko Case delivers these songs with a razor sharpness that is sometimes appealing and occasionally off-putting.
Case’s loyal fans will certainly love songs like “I’m From Nowhere,” which in a slightly different presentation could pass as an old Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash standard. Beautiful, concise and lyrically witty, it showcases all of Neko Case’s strengths as an artist. “Night Still Comes” and “Local Girl” are great indie-pop songs with catchy melodies and clever arrangements that should attract lots of new listeners. The first single, “Man,” features a great vocal performance and wonderful lyrics that are unfortunately overwhelmed at times by the bombast of M. Ward’s guitar. Much better is “Calling Cards,” an understated love song about distance and longing that effortlessly travels right for the heartstrings. It’s a song that Patsy Cline would’ve loved to cover if she was still singing today.
To my ears, the best song on the record is the one that sounds the least like any of the others. “Where Did I Leave That Fire” features Case’s most beautiful vocal performance of the album as she sings over an ambient soundtrack that recalls late-’70s Brian Eno. The introspective, metaphysical lyrics that explore the connection between objects, memory and experience mesh perfectly with the gentle electronic sounds and provide a depth and sophistication that is missing on some of the other songs. It’s a fabulous song that is worth the price of the album. Other highlights include a minimalist cover of Nico’s “Afraid” featuring skeletal keyboards from Marc Ribot. The only real disappointment on the record is “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” an acapella song about overhearing a mother yell at her child while waiting for a late flight at the airport. The vocal performance is effective, but the lyrics are very “on the nose” and lack her usual subtlety.
The Worse Things Get features musical contributions from Howe Gelb, Jim James and Carolyn Mark as well as members of the New Pornographers, Mudhoney, Calexico and Los Lobos. But, however effective or beautiful their performances are, they do little to mute the challenging and difficult aspects that reside beneath the shine they give to the songs. With lyrics that reflect such restless soul-searching and deep discontent, The Worse Things Get isn’t going to attract the easy-listening crowd, but that’s probably not who she was aiming for in the first place. It’s a record that often elevates the listener through its integrity and intensity, and sometimes grates through its failure to find the right music to express its complex lyrical sentiments. But, that’s what happens when an artist doesn’t play it safe, and Neko Case has never played it safe.