LAST SUMMER, Neko Case headlined Pickathon, Portland's favorite hippie music festival. Seeing Case in the woods, joking and riffing between songs with a drunk-and-stoned crowd, was a crash course in the contradictions that are Case. While listening to her songs feels like having your guts gently but firmly sandpapered, her cheery Twitter feed is full of jokes, retweeted comedians, and pictures of dead mice. Clearly, we're dealing with a complicated woman.
Case's new album The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You was partially recorded in Portland. To me, her voice sounds like the sky just before it rains: atmospheric, urgent, pregnant with some imminent meteorological episode. When considering the album's provenance alongside her rainy-day vocals, it's tempting to try to claim her for our own—she's from Tacoma! That's practically Portland! Kind of!—but Case is an artist with such elemental resonance that I suspect she can fit into whatever landscape the listener is currently scanning for emotional metaphors. These days she lives in Tucson; maybe to listeners there, she sounds like the desert, or air conditioning, or ice cream.
The standout track is "Man," a propulsive number brimming with uncharacteristic energy: "I'm a man/that's what you raised me to be/it's not an identity crisis," she sings as guest guitarist M. Ward noodles fuzzily. It sounds like a rebuttal to Martha Wainright's "Oh I wish, I wish, I wish I was born a man"— who knows if it's a feminist mission statement or a bit of roleplaying or just a thought exercise set to a beat, but it's a remarkably strange and catchy number.
Another song with the Winterfell-esque title "Night Still Comes" is a return to the more pensive numbers Case is better known for, less a love song than a shrugging ode to things not working out. "You never held it at the right angle," she sings, maybe a bit regretful, but not sorry. The song is complicated, because life is complicated; and with The Worse Things Get, Case has once again delivered an album that channels and mines those complexities.