The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight...
By Robin Smith | 11 October 2013
The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You is the story of Neko Case, prisoner of a neglectful and uncompromising world, taking her life back and running away with it. If it doesn’t hit you right away, it’s because she has to get to the breaking point before she’s ready to jump in her car. That doesn’t happen on the pulsating “Wild Creatures,” nor the deflating “Night Still Comes,” but on the vitriolic, self-isolating chants of “Man”: “My proxy is my own / You’ll have to deal with me directly.” Add exclamation marks where you want; this is where Case gets real. If you want me, she warns, cutting ties with everyone she ever knew, you’ll have to get through me first.
So begins The Worse Things Get proper, a comically twisted record in which Case removes herself from the general public and seeks revenge on it. It’s hilarious, it’s inspiring, and, mostly, it’s terrifying. That’s all down to Case’s sense of humour, which presupposes that there’s a cartoon anvil somewhere in the desert, waiting to be dropped, but not rebounded. In her world, it lands on the target rather than the see-saw that sends up a flat rock. Her slapstick is an unforgiving kind, which suits the admirable but often misanthropic retribution she exacts on record. Her words have a precision that both tickles you and freezes your insides, and her revelations come after ongoing, unrevoked tragedies. The worst of them is on “Bracing for Sunday,” a song with an indie punk’s velocity but made for a renegade road trip with a CD player full of country albums (just for the stories, though; forget the twang): “I only ever held one love, her name was Mary Anne / She died having a child by her brother / He died because I murdered him.” It has the feel of a getaway song, rumbling down the road as blunted saxophone hurries it along, but in another way, the story ends there. Case elaborates on the murder, but you barely hear it: those six words ring through your ears, stilling you, and the song escapes your reach.
Case is hardworking on this record, and full of things to say about lazy, cruel people (chief among them are asshole men), but her songwriting reminds me most of the tack chill-dude Kurt Vile took on Wakin on a Pretty Daze (2013). Both artists write their lyrics with a shared, zen-killing philosophy; both choose to throw back the rug and make deus ex machina admissions that are dull to them, stunning to everyone else. Vile’s are sleepy, but they’ll make you turn over at night: “Life is like a ball of beauty that makes you just want to cry… then you die.” Case’s, on the other hand, are backed by a ferocious hatred for those that suppress her. On “Man,” the drumming shatters doors open, the guitar licks take names, but it’s Case that holds her victim up by the collar, spitting fresh news in their face: “If I’m dipshit drunk on pink perfume / Then I am the man in the fucking moon.” This is the moment where The Worse Things Get loses it—felt in the way she articulates “fucking,” like it’s time the world learned a lesson—but it’s also where the lines blur. Case spends this record reacting to the world’s hubris, wearied by it or spurred on in her quest to destroy it, but “Man” is her own brand of it. Within her, though, it feels like a righteous fire.
Of course, parts of The Worse Things Get are weary. The reality is that it’s the work of a living, breathing person, concomitant with a solution, singular, but not one that fixes problems, plural. Case noted that this music came after a period of long and unrelenting trauma in her life, and the result is an autobiographical record, not presented as a memoir (it’s way knottier than that; who writes a memoir this eccentric?), but as an exhaustion of every facet of emotion. The upfront a cappella of “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” allows Case’s to voice echo, her soft “No” sifting around the room as a sign of her distress and consumption of pain. She spends the song repeating truths to herself, committing pain to her memory as if it were an important phone number: “I just wanna say it happened, because one day when you ask yourself did it really happen, you won’t believe it / But yes it did / And I’m sorry / Because it happens every day.” “Nearly Midnight” leads into the more full, but equally down-trodden “Calling Cards,” which shares the dark, peaceful cover of “Night Still Comes.” It’s softly percussive and its guitar plucks interlace neatly, but dead ends spill in from the song before it, from one coping mechanism to the next: “We’ll be together, even when we’re not together.”
The most startling thing about The Worse Things Get is that it kind of reinvents the singer-songwriter label, giving it the only distinction that really makes sense to me: all that matters is it has one agency. It’s so autonomous that nobody else in existence counts for shit. That became clear to me on “Local Girl,” a song comprised of minor-key chords that shrink in the background, behind an accusing bass line and a bell that tolls for you. Up there ringing it is Case, brandishing her priestly shaming to all who hear it: “All of you lie about something (You know you do! All of you! Shame on you! All of you lie!).” The Worse Things Get is first-person perspective of the highest degree, its audience— “you”—a univocal pile of human garbage that can’t look after one another or salvage what’s good. What of love songs on this record? Case falls in love with “those electric lights” and sings odes to falling stars. She avenges or retreats to the empty skyline.
I’m cautious of placing this record in Case’s canon, because it’s the first time I’ve made such strong bonds with her music. Middle Cyclone (2009) never bequeathed its own personal brand of anger onto me, and I’ve never connected with Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006) in the way that perhaps I should have. Does that, I wonder, make The Worse Things Get a more significant gut punch, one that better fans are able to get back up from? Case’s wrath and will are huge revelations to me, and they sound like fresh emotions, the result of a specific re-emergence. “Man” doesn’t play like it was exacted over years of practice in the ring, but as an outburst; “Local Girl” seems to me a very sudden finger-pointing, a naming and shaming that’s been buried deep down; and the near-joyful closer, “Ragtime,” is the kind of self-actualization that can only be said once, because that is its glory. That’s why the trumpet blares, because she only gets this fanfare once. That’s why Case has to take a minute or two to sit in silence, before mumbling “that was awesome” while we’re not looking; it was. The Worse Things Get is powerful and assured, and in making true of its promise—to fight harder, and to love one’s self in the face of adversity—it pulls off one of the hardest feats there is.