I've listened to "The Worse Things Get" repeatedly since I got an advance copy a week ago, and I love it more each time. Neko Case's sixth solo release is a challenging and heartfelt recording that has taken four years to produce. Its quality is worthy of her best albums. A more pensive mood prevails this time around, but there are many moments of rock grandeur, particularly on the first single, "Man," and the final track, "Ragtime."
The album's long title may make it seem like she's gone all Fiona Apple on us, yet Neko is still Neko. There's moodiness and haunting personal revelation, but a few of the tunes are upbeat, and they blend together beautifully. Her musical collaborators include M. Ward and members of My Morning Jacket, Camera Obscura, Los Lobos, Calexico, and Case's own band, The New Pornographers, all very good company. They contribute soaring, richly layered accompaniment.
I've followed Case since the late 1990s, when she lived and performed here in Seattle and put out her first solo record, "The Virginian," a superb tribute to her country roots. But she's refused to be identified with any single genre (including "country noir") and has constantly evolved to create her own unique sound. Since 2009's "Middle Cyclone," she went through a deep depression after losing her beloved grandmother and both of her parents, who suffered from mental illness and substance abuse. Those painful experiences are reflected in her new music.
Family dynamics are central to the dramatic album opener, "Wild Creatures." Gender issues are featured on other tracks, such as "Man" and the equally rocking "Bracing for Sunday," which has a tragic tale at its core. We hear the loneliness of life on the road in "I'm from Nowhere," "Calling Cards," and the harmony-filled "Local Girls." "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu" is an arresting a cappella vignette of verbal violence, while a cover of Nico's "Afraid" is a delicate enigma (and yes, Nico and Neko are pronounced the same way: NEE-ko).
Through these songs, it feels like Case is attempting a kind of catharsis. The clarity of her fabulous voice and the brutal honesty of her lyrics (f-bomb alert!) make a potent emotional combination, simultaneously tender and tough. No doubt she will move on to new territory, but the one she's staked out here is a wonderful place to reflect on what the vicissitudes of life and the passage of time do to our hearts and minds.
The deluxe edition of "The Worse Things Get" includes three bonus tracks, the first of which is a cover of a Robyn Hitchcock tune; the remaining two revisit songs from the "Middle Cyclone" period.