Live and Learn: "The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You." How appropriate.
“When you catch the light, you look like your mother. It crushes me some, just right from the sight.”
The very first line of Neko Case’s sixth full-length studio recording indicates to anyone familiar with her work that this record is different. No fantastical storytelling via non-human mammals or meteorological events. No cover nods to other great artists. This time it’s personal. It immediately reminded me of the first earthshaking bars and lines from “Set Out Running” on “Furnace Room Lullaby.”
Side note: I do not believe it is a coincidence that “Set Out Running” made the cut for performance-ready songs on the ongoing tour supporting the new record.
“…Would you like to be the king’s pet or the king? I choose odorless, and invisible, but otherwise, I would choose the king. Even though it sounds the loneliest. There’s no mother’s hands to quiet me.”
For someone who lost both her parents (with whom she was not close) and a very dear grandmother in the years since the release of her last studio record “Middle Cyclone,” this seems like too much to bear, even for the listener. Just where is this thing going?
“Night Still Comes” owns the second slot on the recording - a slot I’ve always believed should be reserved for the definitive song on any record. It is the “troop leader” as Ms. Case described it to Jian Ghomeshi during this Studio Q interview.
Like the whole of the record, it is textured, and layered, deeply. It rivals any of what fans might consider her best songs ever: “I Wish I Was the Moon,” “Hold On, Hold On,” “Guided By Wire,” “Vengeance Is Sleeping,” take your pick.
“I’m a man. You’ll have to deal with me. My proxy is mine. You’ll deal with me directly… ‘Cause you didn’t know what a man was until I showed you.”
“You’re right. I’m from nowhere.”
“They won’t believe you when you say, ‘My mother, she did not love me.’ … You’ll hear yourself complain, but don’t you ever shut up. Please kid, have your say. Because I still love you. Even if I don’t see you again.”
Oh good grief. Here come the tears.
“The Worse Things Get…” plunges and climbs through the registers and the arrangements, rich and sparse. Horns and distorted guitars. Keyboards and melodies and harmonies and lyrics bold as crimson and some so emotionally fragile they teeter on the edge of shattering like an heirloom vase perched on the mantle.
Who’s on the other end of the phone on “Calling Cards” or the subject of the pop-tinged “City Swan?”
“I can’t look at you straight on. You’re made from something different than I know.”
What? Really? Who carries that kind of gravity and how do they survive it? Who on Earth would NOT want to be either of those people? Don’t lie. You know you wish it were you.
“Cease to know or to tell or to see or to be your own... You are beautiful and you are alone. Banish the faceless, reward your grace.”
Go ahead. Shed another tear or two.
“God damn the time and God damn the miles that take me away from you. And change the way I love you.”
I hope, lady, you left the stranger who found your fire something nice.
Find me a more richly, heavily, complexly layered three minutes of music than the last half of “Ragtime.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.
“I’ll reveal myself invincible soon.”
I think you just did.
P.S. If someone can tell me, definitively, what the rounded lyrics at the end of “Ragtime” are, a beer or two (or a cup of coffee or tea or a fucking chai latte or whatever) on me.
Is it ok to expect continued excellence based on occasional moments of genius? After 30 minutes or so chucking this around the campfire with a good friend of mine, we concluded the answer is “No.” And when it comes to art, preference and beauty and genius are highly subjective.
An artist doesn’t give a fuck about what one audience member out of hundreds of thousands wants. And that’s as it should be. And moments of brilliance are rare. Which is also as it should be. Just because I didn’t really dig “Middle Cyclone,” and “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood,” doesn’t diminish their value.
That said, “The Worse Things Get…” is Ms. Case’s greatest work entire to date. (Oh yeah, she’s its executive producer, too.) It’s intensely personal, which helps explain its power. It’s deep. It’s honest. It’s a roller coaster. It is sonically layered and diverse. It is what everything she has done up until now has led to.
I’m still not sure I’m ready for another live show, and that’s ok, too. Don’t worry. I’ll see you when I’m ready.