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Neko Case Gets Manlier (and More Vulnerable) on the Morosely Triumphant ‘The Worse Things Get’

Neko Case / Photo by Emily Shur
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: September 03, 2013
Label: Anti-

Hopefully by now you’ve had the pleasure of falling in love with a Neko Case song — a sweet one (“I Wish I Was the Moon”), a vicious one (“People Got a Lotta Nerve”), a viciously sweet one (“Favorite”) — and thus know the distinct blend of awestruck adoration and abject terror she can invoke, her catapulting deep-country howl worthy of the sirens found atop either shoreline rocks or ambulances. Even her sixth studio album’s wordy, worrisome title — The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You — oozes tender hostility. Her voice is a bear hug in the literal sense; succumbing to it is like being carjacked by Patsy Cline.

Time was you could call what she did “” without feeling terrible about yourself. But over 15-plus years, her rural, urbane noir has deepened and darkened, ferocious in its empathy, cryptic in its sentiment, deadly in its beauty. She specializes in embodying I-am-a-fearless-and-destructive-force lyrical metaphors so totally they cease to be metaphors: Her last and best album, 2009’s Middle Cyclone, featured brutally romantic thunderbolts with titles like “I’m an Animal” and “This Tornado Loves You,” raging amid the odd killer-whale attack or ominous ode to “Prison Girls.” (That one really should’ve been Orange Is the New Black‘s theme song.) Instructive chorus: “I’m a man- man- man-, man- man- man-eater / But you seem surprised, ‘prised, ‘prised, when I eat ya.” You should not have been surprised.

Now, on The Worse Things Get, we make a subtle but vital adjustment via a rambunctious garage-punk tirade called, simply, “Man.” As in, “I’m a man / That’s what you raised me to be.” As in, for the genuinely electrifying climax:

And if I’m dipshit drunk on pink perfume
Then I am the man in the fucking moon
Cause you didn’t know what a man was
Until I
showwwwwwed you

The thundering triumph of those last two words is how people singing along too exuberantly to the radio get into car accidents; it is basically the sonic equivalent of this. Case is beloved for this sort of wildly appealing, seriously dangerous bravado: She’s a veteran, after all, of those risible “Hottest Women in Indie” lists, though further imbued with a no-bullshit toughness that makes clear she can do several things — change a tire, skillfully operate a backhoe, kill a guy with a pool cue — quite outside the skill set of your average compiler of a “Hottest Women in Indie” list. You get flashes of that ardor throughout this record, as on the god-fearing, horn-goosed shuffle “Bracing for Sunday,” whose second verse begins thus:

Only ever held one love
Her name was Mary Anne
She died having a child by her brother
He died, because I murdered him

“He died, because I murdered him.” Wonderful. Those words sound born to come blazing out of her mouth; ditto “Get the fuck away from me / Why don’t you ever shut up,” the nominal chorus to the strange a cappella bus-stop tale “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” But the best moments here are quieter and subtler, especially the bone-chilling respective choruses of dusky waltz “Night Still Comes” (“You never held it at the right angle”) and a gentle cover of Nico’s “Afraid” (“You are beautiful and you are alone”).

She is rarely that plainspoken in song — in recent interviews Case allows that this record was borne of the “gulaggy boringness” of a deep, prolonged depression, having recently lost both her grandmother (to whom she was close) and her parents (less so), but you won’t find those terms laid out so neatly and explicitly here. Content yourself instead with the gorgeous, bleary-eyed devastation of “Calling Cards,” which seems to abstractedly rhapsodize about another songwriter: “Every dial tone / Every truck stop / Every heartbreak / I love you more.” The yearning in those last four words can launch your truck off an overpass, too, but she never loses control of the delicious menace that so perfectly offsets them. A lion licking her wounds is still a lion.