American singer-songwriter Neko Case, of Canadian indie band The New Pornographers, continues the fine tradition of members of established bands doing great side projects. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (The Worse Things Get for short) is Case’s sixth studio album.
Opener Wild Creatures features Case’s calming vocals dishing out lyrics about the desire to be wild and be a king. Case sings about preferring solitude and even draws an historical analogy to kings whose brothers have poisoned them. The lyrics, as well as the ominous arrangement of low piano notes, distant background vocals and smashing cymbals, conjure the image of a turbulent voyage through life and transports listeners to an unsteady ship. The effect is nauseating, but in a good way.
Night Still Comes, with its soulful harmonies and chilled vibe, is evocative of Aretha Franklin’s classic cover of (You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman. The catchy ‘catch, catch, catch a falling star’ line in the chorus and the confronting verse lyric ‘If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?’ are some of the high points of this ballad.
Man wakes up listeners with a jolt and curses like a sailor. It is an energetic rock track whose fast successive drum riffs sound very Go Your Own Way. Its tambourine and quirky honky-tonk piano breakdown sound very Stevie Nicks. Despite the Fleetwood Mac references and lines like ‘deep s— drunk on pink perfume’ and ‘I am the man on the f—— moon’, Man is far from angry. Instead, it is playful and sarcastic.
Case tones things down and lets her voice shine on the acoustic guitar-led I’m From Nowhere, the bittersweet Calling Cards (which is reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s Never Make Me Cry off Tusk), the angelic, mostly a capella Nearly Midnight, Honolulu (which features even more cursing) and the piano ballad Afraid.
The biggest surprises of The Worse Things Get are the brass parts in Bracing for Sunday (a chilled country shuffle that would suit a long road trip despite its lyrics about murder and cold ending) and the irreverent album closer Ragtime (whose overpowering brass arrangement sounds like something off Blur’s Parklife). These inject even more humour to the album, and suggest that Case isn’t taking herself too seriously.
City Swans seems lusty on the surface (‘I can’t look at you straight on’), as it starts with a meet-up in the middle of some street and ends with a walk back to a hotel room. Its subject matter is however softened by the nice background harmonies and gentle electric guitar riffs throughout the song. Local Girl sounds like a menacing soundtrack to a Western with its jazzy drums and guitar, but the harmonies singing ‘shame on you, all of you, liiiiiie’ sound so sugary-sweet.
The highlight and most experimental track of the album is Where Did I Leave That Fire. It sounds eerie, with Case’s restrained vocals contrasted against the song’s low cello tone, sonar sound effects, dissonant piano notes and subdued drums and guitar section with a beautifully sinister chord progression. It’s a huge shame that this track is so short, as it recalls the best elements from Madonna’s Ray of Light and David Bowie’s Heroes albums.
The Worse Things Get is overall a fun record to listen to. Case’s lyrics are honest, and her lead and background vocals sound great. The arrangements on the album have variety and successfully transport the listeners to other places such as a ship in choppy waters. There is nothing pretentious about The Worse Things Get, unlike so many albums these days.
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