Neko Case”s follow-up to “Middle Cyclone,” finds her in a far more personal mood. On that 2009 album, she explored forces of nature. On “The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You,” Case tackles something much harder to wrangle: her own life.
Case wrote and recorded “The Worse Things Get” during a time of great turmoil: her grandmother, whom she was close to, and both her parents, whom she was not, died and she plunged into a depression. Much of the tunes carry a sense of tumult, a near fruitless attempt at making sense amid the chaos. Buoyed by her crystalline vocals, the songs transcend the maudlin to become something much more interesting: a look at the life force that surges through us even as we may feel we”re getting pulled under. Or, as she confesses in “Where Did I Leave That Fire, “I wanted to badly not to be me.”
The album”s most arresting track is “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” an a capella song that recounts Case seeing a mother yell at her child at a bus stop. Case not only wants to tell the child that she loves him/her (the child”s gender is never revealed), but that she witnessed the horror as the child will remember it, it really happened, and to never lose his/her voice. Given Case”s own very troubled relationship with her parents, it”s easy to imagine that she”s wishing someone had done that for her. (Parents come up again in opening track “Wild Creatures,” as she laments “There”s no mother”s hands to quiet me.”)
There”s an aloneness, and in many ways, a sense of isolation, that pervades the album, making the lone cover here, Nico”s “Afraid,” a perfect fit. Case”s take on the tune is spare and haunting. “You”re beautiful and you”re alone,” Case sings as if it”s a haunting curse, as she finds herself in her 40s and single and childless.
Despite its “every woman is an island” feel, “The Worse Things Get” is far from a downer of a set (well, at least not totally). First single “Man,” featuring M. Ward is a gender bending propulsive rocker about Case being a woman in a man”s world. Gender roles come up again in “Night Still Comes,” as she asks “Did you poison my food? Is it because I”m a girl? if I puked up some sonnets would me a ‘miracle?,” and on “I”m From Nowhere.”
In addition to M. Ward, Case is joined by a phalanx of like-minded, indie-rock oriented compatriots, including her New Pornographers band mate A.C. Newman, Howe Gelb, members of My Morning Jacket, Los Lobos and Visqueen.
There”s a sense that the darkness is lifting on closing track, “Ragtime” (Case has said that ragtime was the only music that pulled her out of the abyss during her depression). It”s a shaky ground she finds herself on as “The Worse Things Get” comes to its conclusion, but there is the feeling that rock bottom is in her rear view mirror.