critic’s pick 294: neko case, ‘the worse things get…’

neko case“I am not fighting for your freedom,” sings a profoundly confident Neko Case at the start of her first album in more than four years. “I am fighting to be wild.”

Such an admission is not an idle or contrived boast. In fact, Case sings the line with an almost passive beauty that brings it in line with the steadfast credo serving as the album’s title – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.

A record of often stirring solace and candor, The Worse Things Get is a record that fully matches Case’s strengths as a songwriter with her remarkably unspoiled gifts as a vocalist. The two traits have regularly gone hand in hand on past albums. But those works, wonderful as they were, seem like mere moodpieces compared to the blunt, exact nature of The Worse Things Get.

Once a queen of siren-like alt-country reigning over tunes soaked in ambient reverb, Case moves out into the open on The Worse Things Get with music that favors immediacy over atmospherics.

Her sense of purpose is thrown down for all to witness on the manifesto single Man: “I’m a man…. It’s what kind of animal I am. It’s that simple.” But by the time the song reaches its narrative crescendo (“The woman’s heart is the watermark by which I measure everything”) you’re likely to be so taken by Case’s unassuming authority that you overlook the mix of buzzsaw guitars and vintage girl group harmonies that make the song rock like mad.

Case doesn’t relent even when the music subsides. I’m From Nowhere glides along with a summery folk-pop melody that allows the lovely upper registers of Case’s vocals to soar. But in no way should you mistake this as a retreat into a more demure musical fortress (“I was surprised when you called me a lady because I’m still not so sure that’s what I want to be… I’ll gladly wear the pants into the next century”).

Even when the musical cast turns murky, as it does during the Eno-esque Where Did I Leave That Fire or the otherworldly lullaby version of Nico’s Afraid, the album resonates with an icy confidence.

An impressive support team helps the cause. In Case’s corner here are longtime pals like vocalist Kelly Hogan and multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, as well members of the New Pornographers, Los Lobos and My Morning Jacket. But in the end, Case’s regal voice and wildly in-charge songs clearly sit at the head of the table.

Way to go, Neko. You the man.

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