Neko Case, The Worse Things Get…(2013)

Music for When You’re Lost
I’ve heard Neko Case only once in concert—she opened for Emmylou Harris—and ever since I’ve wished I could hear her live again. There was much to relish: the intensity of her lyrics, the loveliness of the melodies, the simple instrumentation, but those were not what captured my heart and imagination that evening. What did that were the piercingly rich clarity of her voice and the brutal honesty of her songs. Case’s latest album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You not only wins the award for one the longest titles in recent popular music history but displays a virtuosity that reveals how single mindedly she has honed her craft as a musician.

I wanted so badly not to be me
I saw my shadow looking lost
Checking its pockets for some lost receipt
Where did I leave that fire?

[from “Where Did I Leave that Fire?”]

The Worse Things Get is music that does not allow us the cheap luxury of neutrality, of listening while failing to care. Novelist Walker Percy spoke of being lost in the cosmos, and this is the music that supplies the soundtrack. Neko Case makes “roots music for the rootless, country music for exiles,” the Journal Sentinel notes, and the deep yearning in her voice helps us know it is not just an act.

“Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” records a brief chance encounter at an airport, of a mother yelling at her child. Case records it as a witness, for the child so that she will know the pain had a real cause and that someone saw, and was sorry. “I’m From Nowhere” is a simple arrangement, just Neko Case vocals and Jon Rauhouse’s superb acoustic guitar. “Ragtime” and “Where did I Leave that Fire?” feature full bands, and even underwater sounds that force us to remember that no distraction can erase the truth the we live in a badly broken world.

My brain makes drugs to keep me slow,
A hilarious joke for some dead pharaoh.
But now, not even the masons know
What drug will keep night from coming.
There are so many tools that are made for my hands.
But the tide smashes all my best-laid plans to sand.

[from “Night Still Comes”]

The Worse Things Get is stunningly beautiful and intelligent music, sung with what Rolling Stone calls a “knee-buckingly magnificent voice.” To think it merely melancholy is a mistake, I think, though the album fills me with a profound wistfulness. Melancholy suggests sadness or depression, but I hear none of that here. Rather this is the music of a musician who knows what it means to be lost in the cosmos, and who wonders, hope against hope, if it is possible to be found.


Journal Sentinel online (
Rolling Stone (#1198-1199; December 19, 2013-January 2, 2014) p. 26.
The Worse Things Get… by Neko Case (2013).