Music Reviews
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

(Anti-) Buy it from Insound Rating - 9/10
Mentally, I've always grouped Neko Case in with John Darnielle, though their styles have little to do with each other. It's a certain probing mood I need to be in to listen to such personal, yet somehow universal, confessional music. But where the Mountain Goats make me brood, Neko Case, no matter how somber her message, has always evoked a fiery, defiant optimism. And on this, her latest and most emotionally charged album, she's managed to create a painful outpouring of honesty, one that strikes that coveted balance of both melodic and lyrical expression; her message is equally powerful from each direction.
 
I had listened to the album before I realized what had inspired it, and although I could sense the anger and agony in the uncontextualized music, the backstory rejuvenated it. In fact, if you're similarly unaware, stop reading now and listen to the album before you continue. It's rare that I give that much credence to artistic intent when reviewing an album; the finished product can mean different things to each listener, after all. But in this case, it adds a layer of richness that I think is worth experiencing, once without, then together forever after. 
 
In a recent interview with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep, Neko Case said she'd been so depressed she couldn't stand to listen to music. Her creativity had been stifled. As somebody who's struggled with severe depression, I felt a pain in my chest when I heard her describe the feeling. She was so dead on when she told him, a bit awkwardly, that "being depressed is a lot like ... wearing this weird diving bell suit made of Ziploc baggies or something. And you're there with other people and you can see them and hear them and touch them through the baggie or something, but you can't conduct electricity." Having lost her grandmother and both parents, neither of whom wanted or loved her, she seemed to have become trapped in her emotions. The album works its way through this trauma and into acceptance. Where Did I Leave That Fire, a haunting melody on a submarine sonar backdrop, lays the foundation; in just a few words, Neko tells us how bad it really became, but that she can reclaim her fire "if you come down with ID."
 
A real life experience inspired the most powerful track on The Worse Things Get..., a mother at the airport telling her little girl to shut up. Nearly Midnight, Honolulu begins with a literal retelling of the story, but crescendos into a refrain that could easily represent the judging voice living inside the depressed brain, the saboteur self-critic: "Get the fuck away from me/Why don't you ever shut up..." The stark contrast of the harsh words showcased in soft a cappella is gut-wrenching. Neko's clear-as-a-bell voice, overlaid on itself in harmony, is reminiscent of the Beatles' Sun King
 
But the album isn't entirely tragic. Man, a raucous railing against her upbringing sung from an abstractly male perspective, is immediately followed by I'm From Nowhere, where Neko wonders why she's called a lady, "'cause I'm still not so sure that that's what I wanna be." Later, after realizing that the creative fire is something she really can rescue, we're treated to Ragtime, the parting track and the only style of music Neko Case was able to listen to when she was in the darkest recesses of her mind. It's so hopeful that it could easily have a place on a New Pornographers record (though despite their obvious affiliation, I'd never thought Neko's solo work had much overlap with the power ballad powerhouse), complete with an exciting call to arms: So sounds the alarm of Ragtime! "I'll reveal myself when I'm ready," she reassures us, "I'll reveal myself invincible soon."
 
The NPR interview was especially painful for me to hear. The last time I'd heard her on public radio, she was a guest on Wait, Wait...Dont Tell Me!. She was so upbeat and charming, telling the audience about her graveyard of pianos, answering a silly quiz about Necco wafers. She was clever and adorable, and I instantly wanted to be friends with her. It's so much harder to hear of tragedy striking somebody you genuinely like. I can think of no better therapy, no better catharsis, than The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.
 
The album ends after a silence, with a little afterthought like Her Majesty on Abbey Road (and that's the second reference I've made to that album on one review, so perhaps an analytical essay is in order): a little meow or a chirp, and then a smiling voice: "That was awesome."