Neko Case The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight…

[ANTI-; 2013]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: singer-songwriter, rock & roll, sad songs
Others: M. Ward, Liz Phair, Califone, Aimee Mann, Edith Frost, Mark Lanegan, Vetiver

Neko the warrior. Six albums in, and I’m still getting my head chopped off by her music. I’ll find myself blandly thinking “wonder what she’s up to,” and all of sudden, I’m hit with a voice and musical vision so clear it makes you feel like a shaky, near-shattering windowpane in a wind-driven torrential downpour. I could say The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You is her best since Blacklisted, but she’s been consistently listenable for years, and I shouldn’t be surprised. But it is surprising that, in an increasingly fractured audience climate that increasingly forces artists to adapt each time, Neko is still indelibly, essentially Neko. And whatever you happen to be into at the moment, her presence is ever an enriching force in your life.

Neko the sonnet-puking miracle. There is no end to her grace, even among messy, jagged ephemera that constitutes Case’s lyrics. It’s very much like she’s purged her pretty packages of words to make room for the breathlessly world-weary poetry that clings to every melody for dear life. No time for sonnets when there’s wasp nests in your idyll. And while a line like “I remember the 80s/ I remember its puffy sleeves” honestly comes off a bit trite, that honest detail in the end is there as a dare. She’s not talking about easy things, and she’s blazing toward the sensory, sacrificing simple rock tropes and perhaps “cool” itself.

Neko the observer (spoiler alert!). I can’t wait until “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” pops on in a specialty grocery, and while people are comparing frozen tahini balls, Neko belts out: “GET THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME! WHY DON’T YOU EVER SHUT UP?” in her lovely, strident fashion. It’s a gorgeous a capella piece wherein she sings of watching a woman scream these words at her kid while waiting for a bus to the airport. I find myself wondering more about the situation, honestly. Maybe the mom in the scenario was just having a rotten night and being weak, but as one nonetheless affected by these kinds of displays, it is a bracingly vivid tune to process. Niagara Falls. And don’t even get me started on the next song.

Well, okay. “Calling Cards” is one of the best songs on here. You remember Gayngs? No? In any case, the dreamy atmosphere on this tune brings that impossibly drifting, saxingly plush Bon Iver project to mind. Yes, that is a good thing: It is a weepy melodrama set so sumptuously you almost forget to parse out the subject matter. Sounds like it’s about missing people and having old calling cards to remind you that you’ve missed ‘em before. It’s the best kind of sad song. Tender yet somber. Foggy yet grounded. Short and sweet.

Neko the singer. Track-by-track analysis is tempting on such a well-sequenced affair, but her voice continues to command stunned attention, even as the music grows richer and more resonant around it — no matter what quirky risks that voice continually takes with her poetic logic. The way it soars on the chorus of this song puts the hurt on like “Deep Red Bells” — and near deeper too (bells and harmonies). There are things in this world that never stop lifting you up as life messes you about, and this lady’s voice is one of them. She sings and we listen, suddenly inspired by what’s around us again.

Neko the gracious. As noted, the arrangements and performances on this album are compelling in and of themselves, despite the massive pull of the main attraction. Harmony vocals from Kelly Hogan and co. ease their way through and around the lead in elemental sweeps. Horns are perfectly utilized in a tasteful way when they show up in its anomaly status. Submarine sounds and satellite blips open “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” and for a minute, it’s a Blackest Ever Black release. Then it almost turns to a full-on Black Lodge jam. There is such a powerful resonance to the sounds on here, and I’m relieved Case still loves reverb as much as I do.

Neko the Nico. So her cover of “Afraid” raises some issues. Namely, the trick of covering an artist whose innate vocal qualities are so closely tied to their material. There aren’t many Nicos out there, and may never be again, so the fragility of these bittersweet mantras is not to be understated. That being said, Case acquits herself with a sparse piano- and harmony-laden rendition that deftly brings out the disconcerting psychic undertones of the tune. Its stately, meditative weariness suits the record perfectly.

Neko the AOTY. Every year that Neko releases an album is a year that looks significantly better. And if there is a distinction to be had here, it’s the vital versatility to the songs on offer. Its varied textures blow up in your ears like an ideagasm, even as they resonate as standard bearers. Simply put: The Worse Things Get is a no-brainer Album of the Year. I don’t even wanna discuss it!

Links: Neko Case - ANTI-

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