Neko Case has always been brave, but with her latest album she proves herself fearless. With her forthcoming Anti- release, “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You,” the singer known as much for her restless musical curiosity as her clarion voice charts a powerfully personal course across the rocky landscape of childhood, love, and loss.
Case’s 2009 album, “Middle Cyclone,” was her most ambitious to date, vaulting her to new heights of critical and commercial success and netting two Grammy nominations. But if Middle Cyclone—laced with frogs, tornados, and killer whales—was Case’s exploration of the potency of the natural world, the new album sees Case turning inward. “The Worse Things Get …” plunges into the wilderness of human experience, revealing Case at her most emotionally raw and yet, paradoxically, in steely control.
Executive produced by Case, “The Worse Things Get …” was recorded by Tucker Martine in Portland, Oregon, as well as with Chris Schultz and Craig Schumacher in Tucson and with Phil Palazzolo in Brooklyn.
Martine, Case, and Darryl Neudorf mixed the album, on which Case is supported by a battalion of musicians including guitarist Paul Rigby, bassist Tom V. Ray, longtime backing vocalist Kelly Hogan, multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, Kurt Dahle, and John Convertino. Other guests include M. Ward, Carl Newman, Steve Turner, Howe Gelb, and members of My Morning Jacket, Los Lobos, and Visqueen.
This far-flung set of collaborators mirrors Case’s own peripatetic path to creative maturity. Born in Virginia in 1970 and raised, for the most part, in working-class Tacoma, Washington, she’s lived and worked in Seattle, Vancouver B.C., Chicago, and Tucson, before moving five years ago to a 100-acre farm in rural Vermont.
Now 42, Case is reluctant to talk about her family. ‘I am related to some stellar, beloved people,” she says, “but very few.” What she will say is that her parents were young and unprepared and divorced when she was five years old. She bounced around between mother and father until she left home for good at age 15. Marked by alcoholism, drug addiction, and neglect, her childhood was traumatic. “I should have been an abortion,” she said once, her characteristic bravado masking a harder truth.
From art school in Vancouver to early years making music in Seattle and beyond, Case has been on a lifelong quest for self-definition. During the making of this “The Worse Things Get …” she granted herself a long-held desire, committing fully to the life she’s created: tattoos on her forearms reading “Scorned as Timber” and “Beloved of the Sky,” from an Emily Carr painting. “I wanted them for 20 years!” she crows. “No bank job for me!”
With her new roots finally taking hold in Vermont—the place she says she plans to die—she says she’s now grounded enough to grab the past by the throat and let it take her for a ride. “I wanted to be in control, as much as I could be anyway,” she says. “My 40s are a lonelier place than I imagined, but I can look myself in the face and know that it was my choice. So anything that happens to me from here on out is mine. I’m at square one again.”
“The Worse Things Get …”, her sixth studio album, emerges from a three-year period the artist describes as full of “grief and mourning,” in the wake of the deaths of not just both her parents, but several intimates as well.
“I fought hard against the feeling of grief all my life,” she says, “but about three years ago I finally had to give in and mourn the dead. I had to look inward more than I wanted. It was sobering, and I often felt like I was blurring the lines of mental illness.
“When I stopped fighting it,” she adds, “it took me where I needed to go.”
“The Worse Things Get …” traces an emotional arc that reveals Case in all her thorny contradictions, each track in the 40-minute song cycle its own short story. “I like to have a linear flow,” she says of the album’s structure. “I wanted to have faith in the songs as a group rather than stacking the deck with all the upbeat songs at the top.”
From the prickly power-pop aggression of “Man” to the dreamlike “Where Did I Leave That Fire?” and the hopeful uplift of the album’s closing track, “Ragtime,” she displays uncommon dynamic range and lyrical clarity, taking a leap of faith that listeners will hold on for the full journey.
“I just want people to feel like I was straight with them, and messy, because I just let go and trusted them completely.”
Early songs on the album show Case at her most lyrically playful, slip-sliding along the edges of gender, family, and identity. The first track, “Wild Creatures,” throws her themes into bold relief: “When you catch light, you look like your mother,” her voice soars, before asking, “Would you rather be the king’s pet? Or the king?”
“I grew up in the United States in the 70s,” says Case, with feeling. “The new mantra on children’s television then was ‘you can be whatever you want.’ I take that to heart so hard it’s my religion; it’s my personal American flag and Constitution. It makes petty societal obstacles crumble and I want every person in the world to feel it. “
Or, as she proudly proclaims on the single, “Man”: “I’m a man’s man, I’ve always been. But make no mistake what I’ve invested in. A woman’s heart is the watermark by which I measure everything.”
“Is a lioness not a lion?” she says rhetorically, when asked to decode the lyrics. “We are all ‘men’ – ‘man’ or ‘woman’ doesn’t cut it for me unless I’m at the gynecologist.”
Case’s rich, associative lyrics can at times be so elliptical as to be misunderstood by casual listeners. Not so with the a cappella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” which marks the tonal shift of the album at midpoint with chilling clarity.
Spare and direct, the lyrics repeat verbatim the words of a mother’s verbal attack on her daughter, which Case overheard one night in, yes, Honolulu. “Get the fuck away from me,” she sings in affectless, bell-like tones. “Why don’t you ever shut up?”
“I died inside for that kid,” says Case-who framed the rest of the song as a message to the child to stay strong and to honor the truth of her experience. “But she just kept singing her own little song. She was my hero.”
The direct address of “Honolulu” is mirrored three tracks later with Case’s take on the Nico song, “Afraid,” the sole cover on the 12-song album.
That song’s incantatory quality carries the album through to the otherworldly “Where Did I Leave That Fire?” Underscored by the haunting pings of submarine sonar, what starts as a dreamscape of loss -- “I wanted so badly not to be me,” sings Case – concludes on a note of wry humor. “I do believe we have your fire lady. You can pick it up if you come down with ID.”
But for all the pain and confusion that winds through the album, “The Worse Things Get …” ends on an unequivocal note of hope and power. At her darkest moments over the last few years, Case says, “I was uneasy and distractible. I couldn’t listen to music except ragtime. It was so hopeful and busy, like something working like a little factory to fix me.” Thus, “Ragtime,” the album’s final song.
“I'll reveal myself when I'm ready. I'll reveal myself invincible soon,” sings Case, as she builds to its ecstatic conclusion, the richly layered chorus of vocals and horns climbing and climbing into one glorious shout from the mountaintop.
“I am one and the same, I am useful and strange,” she soars, before closing with a line cribbed from Moby Dick., which she read for the first time while working on the album, and which proved a valuable yardstick “There’s a wisdom that’s woe, and a woe that is madness.”
It’s Neko Case in a nut -- and could well give listeners goosebumps.