Published on September 9th, 2013 | by Dan Rahe2
Neko Case is Still Elusive
For those of you who care about such things, Neko Case put out a new record called “The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You,” last week. It’s pretty good, from what I can tell by listening to it.
Case’s work always gets an especially warm welcome in Tacoma, where we quietly hope for yet another resonating lyrical reference to her years living among us, eating Frisko Freeze, working at Java Jive, and carousing with punks.
It is no wonder that many here feel a special affinity for Neko Case. She may live in Vermont now, and is not a Tacoma native, but with “Thrice All-American,” (her only song entirely dedicated to Tacoma as a topic) she fondly expressed what many feel about our city: an attachment to both its hopefulness and its blatant dereliction. Everyone loves an underdog anthem.
“There was no hollow promise that life would reward you / There was nowhere to hide in Tacoma.”
The vacuous pang in that song could be mistaken for fetishization of urban hardships, but it’s not.
It’s the recognition that our own destiny could be heartbreaking and drab, and perhaps devoid of any dignity but the prosaic kind. It’s a song about neglect and uncertainty.
”Thrice All-American” captured a time in Tacoma before new vitality seemed likely. This is still a working class city, but with condominiums lining the waterfront and a scrubbed-up downtown, any NPR-friendly re-visitation of those sadder, dying city themes would seem a bit gauche or flippant today.
And there’s nothing about Tacoma on Neko’s new record, anyway.
So, now that I’ve met my obligation to babble about Case’s links to Tacoma, I’d rather discuss more substantive things about her work: Specifically, how much I like it.
The first single from the new record, “Man,” recalls the source of my love for Neko Case, though I do not like the song at all. The lyrics, which are excellent if not a bit overstated, get choked in a rock arrangement that was meant to sound like a whirlwind, but ends up sounding a bit friendly.
“I’m a man. You’ll have to deal with me,” she sings above the enthusiastic fray. She is not singing from the perspective of a man. She is singing about herself. And when she says “deal with me,” she does not mean “negotiate with me.” She means “Neko Case is a man, and you’re going to have to come to terms with that.”
You could call it a kind of androgyny, but it’s not. As Neko said in a recent interview, “[For me,] you know, the feminine choice was never the one that was cool. It was never the one I would choose. If they did it in sort of a prince and princess way, ‘Do you want to grow up to be the king or would you rather be the dress-wearing courtier?’ I would rather be the king, thank you.”
She writes and lives with indifference to the perspective she is expected to have as an American woman; the feminine worldview is clearly foreign or ill-fitting to her. She refers to herself as “an animal” – recognizing that if we could subtract societal artifice, we are creatures engaged in the rather simple mechanics of survival. As she sings in “I’m an Animal” from the previous album “Middle Cyclone”:
“Pick up that rock. Drink from that lake. I do my best but I’m made of mistakes.”
I share Neko’s indifference toward the codes and trappings of gender. But unlike Neko Case, I would never write a song declaring to all, “I’m a man.” So, as much as I disagree with the arrangement for the song, I admire her approach. She winkingly grants dominance to “Man,” aware that dominance is a delusion for any creature in the wild, unpredictable world, regardless of gender. It’s a funny twist that this is also perhaps her boldest statement of self-determination.
Neko Case is a stubbornly singular soul, forging her own path. But she is also an abominably good writer who knows how to build an irresistible song. Even when her rich voice suggests the ache of longing, her lyrics betray skepticism, detachment, and often, cynicism. This juxtaposition is evident on the new song “Local Girl,” which carries the stormy refrain, “All of you lie about ‘someday’ – shame on you, all of you – you’re on a first name basis.”
At the end of the song, we feel the impending collapse of her defensive pose, as her voice sinks into the words, “God damn the time, and God damn the miles that take me away from you. And change your face. And change the way I love you.”
The thing is, just when you almost sense vulnerability in Neko Case, you can’t find it. At her most confessional moments, closer inspection reveals inscrutability. You can feel the invitation in her bravado and in the charm of her voice, but that invitation is to a mosaic of fractured sentiments, measured obfuscations, and glowering condemnations.
Eventually, most of her songs keep the listener at a safe distance. Her admissions are evasive. I find it delightful.
“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” shows the imprint of Case’s childhood loneliness, as she paints an ugly portrait of a reckless mother verbally demeaning her young child in an airport. Her lyrics burn, close to home and lived-in: “They won’t believe you when you say, ‘My mother, she did not love me.’ Someday, you will feel like a cartoon, and people will rush to make excuses for you…” There is no undoing what’s been done, and the palpable tragedy of this small scene is haunting.
It is hard to tell where my enjoyment of Neko’s work ends and my identification with her attitude begins, Too many times, I’ve contemplated my own dumb life while her lyrics rolled through my mind. I’ve felt recognized by her lines, found out, and comforted that there are words for such things.
Some reviewers hear a new, emotionally approachable Neko Case in “The Worse Things Get…,” raw from a series of personal hardships (death in the family, romantic troubles). I don’t. I hear the same woman, confident in her own perspective, and defined by her contradictions – fuck all of you, I love you, I am lonely, I need no one, make no demands of me, I wish I knew how to help you. I am guilty. I feel no regret.
“The Worse Things Get…” is a tribute to self-possession, just as her other records are; and just like her other records, it is also a monument to her need for collaboration, each song dependent on the contribution of her guest musicians. But it’s never a heavy-handed affair. The human intricacies she conveys are shared with equal parts crude humor and ponderous poetry.
It’s a Neko Case record. And she promotes it with an instructional video on how to make borscht.