Neko Case has spent the last 15 years perfecting both a dark strain of alt-country and a lyrical style that rejects songwriting conventions in order to build up wholly new personal mythologies. As her songs have grown moodier and more cinematic, Case has become less willing to state anything outright, instead finding ever more circuitous routes around her subjects. Hers is a defiantly impressionistic style, both withholding and revealing, and it reaches a peak on her latest album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You.
Despite a title that might leave Fiona Apple shaking her head, Case’s idiosyncratic record yields lovely and chilling moments. “Calling Cards” builds to a curious confession — “I’ve got calling cards from 20 years ago” — yet Case takes what sounds like a banal line about her hoarding tendencies and turns it into a devastating declaration of love and friendship, set to a lighter-than-air arrangement. “Man” is the most New Pornographic she’s sounded by herself, and “Night Still Comes” gains its considerable power from both her electric vocals and from her skewed imagery about puking up sonnets and the oblique accusation “You never held me at the right angle.” Who is addressing who, exactly, is up to the listener to decide.
And yet, The Worse Things Get contains a few of Case’s most direct tunes, such as the touring diary “I’m From Nowhere” and the murder ballad “Bracing for Sunday” (with its succinct confession, “he died because I murdered him”). The a cappella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” splits the album down the middle, with no discernible verse of chorus but some surprisingly frank lyrics. Singing about a child abused by her mother, Case multiplies her voice sympathetically, as though summoning an army to protect the kid. It’s so plainspoken that it veers toward artless, but for Case it’s an endeavor of enormous empathy, which is the engine that drives that mighty voice.