Full disclosure: Neko Case is my cool aunt. And high school English teacher. And therapist, actually. And local bartender. And guardian angel. And she’s my pet—a cat when I need cool wisdom, a dog when I need affectionate understanding. She is, and has been, all of these things to me since 2006, when I picked up her album “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood,” a haunting album of folk tales and murder ballads. Her last album, 2009’s “Middle Cyclone,” was a gorgeous suckerpunch of songs about personified natural disasters and, yes, more murder ballads. Now, Case is back with “The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.” While murder ballads remain (“Bracing for Sunday” includes the spectacular line: “She died having a child by her brother/ He died because I murdered him.”), most tracks explore unmarked emotional territory.
This is Case’s most confessional record, by far. Here, she reckons with child neglect, death, gender, and depression with crushing honesty and an impossibly sordid wit. In the past, she’s skirted these topics with stories of caged tigers and killer whales, but here she removes all obscurity and metaphor, finally letting herself be the animal of interest. The result is not weak or vulnerable—rather, Case comes off as an even stronger artist. Her muscle is no longer reserved for her songwriting or voice, but shared with her spirit.
Musically, “The Worse Things Get…” is a logical progression. There are dive bar folk ballads (“I’m From Nowhere,” “Calling Cards”) alongside power pop gems that recall her other work in the New Pornographers (“Man,” “Ragtime.”) But the album is not without its risks. Most notable is “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” an a capella reflection on witnessing a mother yell at her child at a bus stop. You haven’t experienced the words, “Get the fuck away from me/ Why don’t you ever shut up?” until you’ve heard them harmonized.
The last few years have been ones of aggressive transition for Case. She lost both parents, with whom she was not close (she ran away from home as a teenager), and her grandmother, with whom she was. She fell into a depression. She got tattoos. And now she’s emerged with the most emotionally raw record of her career. If resilience has a sound, it’s Neko Case’s voice.
Neko Case is performing at First Avenue on October 16 and 17.