opinion by JERRICK ADAMS
Much of the advance press surrounding Neko Case’s sixth studio album stresses that the record is a response to extreme personal grief. In an interview with The Guardian, Case herself suggests as much, saying of the four years that separated this record and her most recent, 2009’s Middle Cyclone, “I was going through really a hard time and pretty depressed. Just grieving. Lost a lot of family and stuff. It hadn’t happened all at once, but I had never really slowed down to grieve. And I kind of took it in a farming way, you know, like ‘They’re dead. Gotta keep going.’ But you really do as a human being have to slow down and take it in and look it in the face.”
But to my ears, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You is not a record about mourning or death, at least not in the traditional sense. There’s too much fire, fight, grit, and humor here for what is usually such a funereal form.
Throughout, particularly in the record’s first half, Case threatens, browbeats, and challenges the listener. When she sings, “I am the man in the fucking moon,” it’s not an idle boast but a warning. Later, on “Bracing for Sunday,” a man dies “because [she] murdered him.” Later still, she admits, “I was surprised when you called me a lady, ‘cause I’m still not so sure that’s what I want to be.” And let’s not forget, Case cuts these sentiments with a healthy dose of humor, dropping jokes about secrets “not even the Masons know,” the puffy sleeves of the ‘80s, and trust fund kids.
In keeping with this more confrontational approach, metallic sounds abound on The Worse Things Get. Guitars don’t jangle or chime, but rather rankle. What’s more, the mixes on some of these tracks verge on distortion, often sounding like something you might hear on the radio late at night, tuning into an alt rock station a hundred miles away. The result does not make for easy listening, but it’s never less than compelling.
Elsewhere, Case opts for softer sounds that match the more melancholy fare that rounds out the album. Some of these songs (e.g., “Night Still Comes,” with its soaring chorus, and “Calling Cards”) work beautifully, giving added depth to the harder numbers by contrast. Others fall flat, rarely rising above the admittedly appealing production to enter your consciousness. At least one, “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” attempts to be genuinely moving and instead comes perilously close to the merely maudlin.
Taken together, the result is a conflicted record, sometimes confused and occasionally confusing. That’s appropriate, though — if grief was indeed the album’s catalyst, then it’s a more accurate expression of grief than most such records not in spite of these contradictions, but because of them. And while the subsequent inconsistency may hold The Worse Things Get back from greatness, it does make it honest, and when it comes to art I’ll take honesty over consistency any day. [B]