Friday, May 20, 2016

The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight (Guest Post)

Today's guest blogger is Libby O'Neil, a singer-songwriter from Lawrence, Kansas. Her EP, Not Enough, came out earlier this month - you can check it out on Libby's Bandcamp page or read my review of it here.

If, having heard her music and read her thoughts on this Neko Case album, you fancy following Libby on Twitter, her handle is @libbyoneilmusic.

I was first introduced to Neko Case through The New Pornographers, but her vocal additions to A.C. Newman's songs, while lovely, pale in comparison to the power of her solo work. Over the last three decades, Case has constructed an intimidating discography; anyone who's heard even just a few minutes of her work knows that her voice alone can make the hair on your arms stand to attention.

Case's most recent solo album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, was released in 2013 on Anti Records. Recorded after a series of deaths in Case's family, this album is her most emotionally incisive collection of songs to date. On her previous album, Middle Cyclone, Case's characters and emotions were painted into the forces of nature; on The Worse Things Get..., Case's writing is firmly rooted in the minutiae of human life, from the slog of being a touring musician on I'm From Nowhere to the heart-breaking portrait of a child being verbally abused by their mother in Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.

The powerful songwriting is well-matched by the enveloping instrumentation, crafted by Case along with a cast of backing musicians that includes M. Ward, A.C. Newman, and Jim James. Each track on The Worse Things Get... is built for economy, with half the songs clocking in at under 3 minutes. The tight, imaginative arrangements leave just enough room for the songs to grow without letting the album drag on at any point.

Like Case's previous work, The Worse Things Get... takes on the modern womanhood. "I'm a man, and not just casually" she sings on Man, an upbeat track filled with distorted guitars and a driving rock piano. Man paints a gender-bent picture of the narrator while lambasting the societal double standards towards women. Later, on I'm From Nowhere, she sings "I'll gladly wear the pants into the next century", again questioning the confines of modern femininity.

In an interview with NPR, Case described herself as "a straight white female or whatever at the gynaecologist", but she definitely does not allow herself to be contained by our current construction of gender on The Worse Things Get...

While the exploration of gender in the first few tracks is fascinating, this album is fundamentally about grief and depression. Her familial grief is hinted at as she sings "There’s no mother's hands to quiet me" on the first track, Wild Creatures, and her commiseration with the poor child on Nearly Midnight, Honolulu is obvious. Finally, the emotional crux of the album comes on the penultimate track, Where Did I Leave That Fire. Although this track is more ambient and experimental than the rest of the album, meandering for over a minute through submarine sonar sounds and wandering synths, when it finally works its way to lyrics it doesn't waste your time:

"A chill ran through me
And I grabbed on tight
That was when I left my body for good
And I shook off all the strength I'd earned

I wanted so badly not to be me
I wanted so badly not to be me
I saw my shadow looking lost
Checking its pockets for some lost receipt

Where did I leave that fire?"

I'm not sure if I've read a better summary of depression than this.

After that glimpse into the depths of depression, Case picks us back up with a glowing ember of hope on the final track, Ragtime, where she imagines the eventual return of summer in a snow-covered town, ending with a promise: "I'll reveal myself invincible soon."

There’s also a bonus track about ferrets, so that’s cool.

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