Though it was written during a period of all-consuming, long-delayed grief and sadness, Neko Case’s latest album is far from being her most depressing.
That honor goes to 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby, which—if you’re quick enough pushing the skip button on the two more rollicking tracks—could be retitled Songs to Wallow to But Not in a Pathetic Way. The Virginia-born, Washington state-raised, honorary Canadian sings richly and hauntingly on the album, tackling topics like death and heartbreak with clear eyes and straightforward reflection. It was her final outing under the Neko Case & Her Boyfriends moniker and possesses more strum and twang than her recent releases, which are still rooted in country noir but possess more of an indie-rock backbone with poppy-folk trimmings.
The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, released Sept. 3, on the other hand, might have been born from sorrow—Case’s parents and grandmother all died within a five-year span—but it’s not built for wallowing.
The album comes more than four years after 2009’s Middle Cyclone, her most commercially successful album (though the media blitz behind The Worse Things Get, including videos for Funny or Die and Rookie, could change that). She’s spoken openly about how a drive to keep working meant that she never really had a chance to experience and recognize her grief, and once that sadness came, it basically kneecapped her. She wrote a few of the songs while so absorbed in the throes of grief that, she told NPR earlier this year, when it came time to record them in the studio, she didn’t even recognize them.
One of those, “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” is perhaps most similar to the kind of song you’d expect to hear on a post-depression album in its title and its initial haunting, meandering rhythm—though it’s Neko Case, so of course there are sonar ping sounds, because working on the song made Case feel like she was living in a submarine. And while lyrics like “I wanted so badly not to be me” speak to Case’s mindset, the song then shifts into a determined pace and returns to the fanciful, storytelling style found on recent albums: “At six o’clock tomorrow/ a strange voice says to me/ I do believe we have your fire, lady/ You can pick it up if you come down with I.D.”
Critics have lauded The Worse Things Get as her most open and revealing album yet, citing the absence of songs overtly about animals or hurricanes that populated her past two albums. While it’s clearly more autobiographical than past albums, it’s still cloaked in wordplay and twisting stories; in Case’s hands, a song about being on tour sounds like an ancient folk tale. But even as she sings about Masons, dead pharaohs, swans and centipedes, the mood is aggressive and empowered.
Though Case eschews the fights over what feminism is—or who’s a feminist—the album will no doubt be fodder for discussions about feminism and gender. “I’m a man/ You’ll have to deal with me,” she sings loudly and directly on the jangly, almost rock & roll lead single, “Man.” Dreamy album opener “Wild Creatures” asks, “Hey little girl/ Would you like to be the king’s pet or the king?” then answers, “I would choose the king/ even though it sounds the loneliest.”
The album closes with “Ragtime,” a slow, triumphant track that’s the auditory equivalent of Case finally beginning to summit the crest of a hill. “I’ll reveal myself invincible soon,” she sings as the horns swell.
Another four-year break seems unlikely; Case already has material ready for a follow-up to The Worse Things Get—“A Tribute to Whores,” which she teased as a new song at 2012’s summer show at the Utah Arts Festival, is absent from this album—and is planning to reunite soon with Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers. In the meantime, Case’s signature blend of melancholy music, between-song banter with bandmates and one-liners—“This song is also a fucking drag” is how she previewed “A Tribute to Whores” last year—will close out Red Butte Garden’s summer concert series.
Red Butte Garden
300 Wakara Way
Monday, Sept. 16, 7 p.m.