I remember when I first heard Neko Case. The Rough Guide to Americana, a Rough Guide compilation I’d bought in 2001 to help me expand my knowledge of alternative country, a genre I was just starting to explore. Track 3, Neko Case & Her Boyfriends “Guided By Wire.”
Case’s pure country voice was instantly arresting. High and taut, with the dust of the prairie and a twang in the tail. The song was sung of hearing voices and struggling with mental illness, and with rough-edged guitar and an endearing single-take feel it became a quick favourite.
It sent me out to track down as many albums as I could, falling more and more in love with her songs and her voice with each purchase.
And to tell as many people as I could about her. That’s a particular joy, discovering and falling in love with some new artist or album – or beer or bar – and seeing others discover them and their popularity grow.
Case is a pretty big deal these days, and seems to have a particularly large fan-base down here in Wellington New Zealand. Indeed, she’s coming back to play the Festival of the Arts in a few months time, two shows. Her second visit in three years (I think).
I love her second and third albums, Furnace Room Lullaby and Blacklisted. Country-gothic is a term often used to describe them; Case’s keening country voice soaring over dark tales and reflections on murder, mystery, and a woman’s place in the world. But in later albums the country started to fade, and instead in its place came a big wall of reverb.
I have a problem with reverberation. Not the use of it, per se, but the way it’s become used in the last decade by artists within both the country and alternative genres. Adding space and depth is one thing, but burying the instruments and vocals in a murky wall of echoes is quite another. I don’t like it. It distances me from the music.
Amongst the murk, Case’s lyrics also seemed to fade. The tales were still dark and pretty, but too often Case sounded removed from her subject matter, singing as an observer, a narrator. And this emotional disconnect just added to the distance the reverb was putting between me as listener and the songs on my stereo.
Still, amongst the tracks on her 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings The Flood there was a song that has always been one of my favourites. “Hold On, Hold On” is great, a driving confessional of loneliness and desperation. At the time Case said that it’s one of the few songs where the lyrics describe a very personal experience. And that’s its strength to me, and I often wished she’d write more like it.
And with The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You that’s exactly what Case has done. There’s a directness, an honesty on this album that is striking and exciting. And inspiring. Case isn’t holding back. She’s got things she wants to say about being a woman, being a woman in the music industry, about being alone and lonely, about the cruelness people show each other.
And, with the direct honesty of her lyrics, the music has come closer too. The reverb is still there, but it’s just an ingredient in the sound of a band that’s very comfortable and up-close. You can hear each instrument, and each slightly off-centre feel Case inhabits on this album is played loosely but expertly, each sound vibrant and meaningful.
The album’s precise. Urgent. It doesn’t shy away from the big rock gesture, it also allows itself the empty space to put Case’s vocals front-and-centre.
She hasn’t returned to the country of old – and why would she? With each album she’s changing, and that’s a sign of an artist who is continuing to grow and explore. This album flirts with country, especially on the first half of the album, but a nearer touchstone may well be the layered, intricate almost-pop music of The New Pornographers (a band Case has recorded and toured with since the late 90s).
But while A. C. Newman’s songs lead The New Pornographers to baroque pop and rock, with Case it’s gritty country-tinged rootsiness that underlies her intricate sound. These songs sound like some half-remembered, half-heard tune on a jukebox you saw in some old American film, recorded and brought to life by this iron-lunged woman, right before your ears.
She’s pissed off. Just witness the snark within the lead single “Man,” a driving, propulsive rocker, complex and confident, sarcastically railing against the ‘strengths’ of men. Or the quiet lonely anger of “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” where Case sings support for a neglected child. Case spits with disgust and venom often on this album; “fuck being quiet about this shit,” she seems to be saying. “Listen to me. Treat your children properly. Stop being sexist arseholes, you fuckers.”
And then it all rolls to an end with “Ragtime,” an utter favourite of mine. Led by a throbbing guitar, Case brings the album to its end by watching snow fall out her window, finding some kind of peace as the band rolls along, finally joined by joyously parping trumpets.
It’s an incredibly good album. Unexpectedly good. I wasn’t expecting it. And I can’t stop listening to it, even four months after its release.
My favourite album of 2013, right here.
Beer match: This album is a bit dark, a bit pretty, and quite forthright. And, when I think of Neko Case I do think of her red hair and her love for her pets, especially dogs. So, Parrotdog’s Bloodhound seems a close fit, being a brash amber ale, full of hops on top of a solidly dark base.
 I’ve never been cool enough to hate it when the things I like become popular. Despite the beard.↩
 That’s “gothic” in the William Faulkner sense, not the Andrew Eldritch sense.↩
 “Help! Help! An indie band’s fallen down the well!”↩
 I may be wrong, but I can’t remember Case swearing on any earlier studio albums. If she did, it wasn’t with the deliberate force and intent she uses to get her point across on here.↩