“In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer” wrote author and absurdist philosopher Albert Camus in 1952. Paralyzed by existential indecision, Camus made a discovery that enabled him to carry on — the only way to cope with his realization that human life had no apparent meaning was to seek out its meaning anyway. Although this recursive reasoning may have helped bring Camus out of his funk, something more straightforward is usually required for the rest of us. Simply put, during times of trouble, we seek meaning in the things we are put on earth to do; parents care for their children, writers put pen to paper, artists struggle to create art.
During the four year hiatus following 2009’s Middle Cyclone, alt-country singer/songwriter Neko Case suffered from debilitating depression brought on by the death of her grandmother (whom she loved) and both of her parents (whom she despised). Unable to socially interact with others or listen to music, Case finally embraced her condition through the act of writing and singing songs. Her sixth album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, is the yield of that dark season spent plowing the fields of her heart — equal parts gnashing of teeth and a softly-sighed coming to terms.
It’s an earthy, eclectic array of torch songs, murder ballads, and country rockers, carved from the same knotty tree as 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, but more weathered, wiry, and beautiful. Musically accessible, yet defiantly obtuse in form and lyrics, The Worse Things Get is as striking as it is strange — as much a testament to Case’s exceptional talent as to her artistic integrity.
Case’s voice remains one of the purest pleasures in music today, the perfect vehicle for her enigmatic tales of emotional entanglement. Across the canvas of “Night Still Comes,” her alto spills out sweetly like rich water colors when she croons “You never held it at the right angle” — a vintage Case chorus in the vein of “Star Witness” or “Deep Red Bells”, as unforgettable as it is inscrutable. “I’m a man eater” Case once hungrily proclaimed on Middle Cyclone, but on The Worse Things Get’s “Man” she assumes the role of her prey: “I’m a man/ That’s what you raised me to be/ This is no identity crisis/ This is planned.” For a woman who’s sung from the point of view of wild animals, a tornado, and the moon, the opposite sex may be the most unlikely persona Case has ever adopted. Fueled by M. Ward’s snarling guitar and Case’s candid assertion: “I invest in/ A woman’s heart/ It’s the watermark/ Of which I measure everything,” “Man” is a far more inclusive and subversive expression of feminist empowerment: if you can’t eat ’em, join ’em.
The most intriguing protagonist in this collection of songs turns out to be Case herself; The Worse Things Get is the most autobiographical album of her career. “Where Did I Leave That Fire” chronicles her struggles with depression (the song plumbs such emotional depths that Case included sounds of submarines), and “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” is her startling eye-witness account of the verbal abuse suffered by a child at the hands of her own mother. Case delivers the episode a cappella with shudder-inducing frankness: “Get the fuck away from me/ Why don’t you ever shut up?” It feels like an old wound being torn right open —- and not just the child’s. In interviews, Case has claimed her own parents never wanted her, and that crushing admittance hangs over this record . As Case whispers says at the end of “Wild Creatures”: “There’s no mother’s hands to quiet me.”
Although Case possesses a gorgeous set of pipes and keen melodic instinct, she’s able to communicate her sense of feeling ill at ease by deviating from traditional songwriting patterns. Her songs are lush and cozy, yet often spurn structural conventions — a missing third verse, unresolved melodies, no choruses — like a house made from the finest materials and furnishings that confounds you with its irregular floor pattern. At times, it’s perplexing. The Worse Things Get is too well put together to be considered haphazard, but there’s an almost inchoate quality to it, as is the case with the rest of Case’s albums.
She’s an artist who has all the tools — the voice, the chops, the songwriting skills, and lyricism — to make a Big Statement, yet she seems content in modesty and idiosyncrasies. It’s not that she’s incapable — rather, she’s unwilling. But that bold, romantic allegiance to her creative self is part of Case’s quixotic appeal. Pop leanings be damned, Case has always written songs that she wants to hear — as asymmetric and weird as they are beautiful.
Fittingly, the album’s closes with the triumphant, horn-filled “Ragtime” which was inspired by songs from her grandmother’s era, the only music Case was able to listen to during her worst days of despair. “Reveal myself when I’m ready/ I’ll reveal myself invincible soon” Case declares, returning to what she loves and finally clawing her way out of her personal hell. Examining The Worse Things Get in the hopes of unraveling the Gordian Knot of Case’s psychology may be a needless exercise; these twelve songs ultimately prove cathartic, but for her, not us.
She’s imparting her darkness upon you, not to be elucidated but rather to be enveloped in, like a childhood bedspread pulled up over your head that both soothes and suffocates. Yes, Case knows there are real things out there to be afraid of, but the very existence of The Worse Things Get proves there’s a light at the end of tunnel, too. The only way out — you guessed it — is through.