“Man” is the best song Neko Case has to her name at this point in time, and I’m including her work with the New Pornographers when I say this so you’ll know just how much that compliment means when you recall she’s responsible for the rather stellar “Letter From an Occupant.” Two great moments are to be found in the song. The first is at the 2:43 mark, where everything quiets down so she can deliver “And if I’m dipshit drunk on pink perfume / Then I am the man in the fucking moon.” It might be the most riveting moment in her entire discography. The second is at the 2:38 mark, where the arpeggiated line that we’ve been introduced to before comes back, but higher. But the song’s secret weapon is guitarist M. Ward not just for the solo, but for tossing in concussive grenades of guitar crunches during the verses, which helps propel the song forward with the splattering drums, towards its Belle and Sebastian’s “Lazy Line Painter Jane”-esque conclusion. I just wrote 200 words about a song that was barely talked about from an album that was barely talked about because people should be fucking talking about it.
Broadly speaking, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, The More I Love You – great title, by the way – is a huge improvement over the preceding Middle Cyclone in numerous ways. The first is that the Neko Case seems to be disinterested in hiding behind nature metaphors. Instead, she’s singing about real people and relatable situations. “I’m a man / That’s what you raised me to be / I’m not an identity crisis,” is how she begins “Man,” and note how it later changes to “I’m not your identity crisis.” The songs that sandwich “Man” continue the theme, with “Night Still Comes”‘ Did it poison my food, is it ‘cause I’m a girl?” and “I’m From Nowhere”‘s “I was surprised when you called me a lady / ‘Cause I’m not so sure that’s what I want to be.” Elsewhere, though it’s my least favorite from the bunch because it’s awkwardly bombastic (or maybe the other way around), I can’t deny the sentiment in “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” where she describes witnessing a verbally abusive mother and apologizes to the kid on the mother’s behalf and offers solace in case she should run into the song. Secondly, her backing band on The Worse Things Get is larger than ever before, and she uses them all well. In particular, “Wild Creatures” unravels itself instrumentally even though the total running time is under 3 minutes and the unravelling doesn’t begin until the 1:37 mark.
Unfortunately, the album doesn’t come together as well as I’d hoped. Neko covering Nico isn’t as wonderful as music fans all thought it would be in our wildest wet dreams. Actually, the harrowing backdrop of “Where Did I Leave That Fire” sounds more like Nico’s original of “Afraid,” and Neko Case’s “Afraid” sounds absolutely standard. Outside of “Wildest Creatures,” “Man” and “City Swans,” the album’s other pleasures are more particular: ie. the choruses of “Night Still Comes” are the album’s most melodic, and the ambiguity of the “it” in “You never held it at the right angle” make it the most hard-hitting, emotionally, to the choruses of “Local Girl” with its backing vocals, to My Morning Jacket’s Bo Koster’s contributions to “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” to the uplifting horns of closer “Ragtime” which severely needs less plodding drums to justify its runtime.