The first time I wrote a real music review, real like for money, I choked. I'd done all the research, the interviews, everything. But the night before the deadline I blanked and couldn't write a word. I called my editor, who was drinking at a loud bar. The enormity of writing about music had overwhelmed me — I was trying to do something Lester Bangs did, and it seemed impossible. Why? How? "I can't do it," I said. "I'm sorry, I have nothing to give you." My editor was so nice about it. "Yes you can, you can totally do this. Don't even worry. It's going to be great!" He was nice, but he was also practical, and trying to get me to do my job, hit my deadline.
"It's just you and the music," he said. "That's all there is. Listen to the music and write down what you hear. That's it."
It's just you and the music.
Neko Case's first new album in four years means the singer, songwriter, and ever-more-talented producer has cooked up 15 more songs for you to be with. Because that is Case's signature move — leaving room for you in the songs, even if you're like the 2006 interviewer who said, "I'll be honest, I'm often confused by your lyrics. Do you go out of your way to be cryptic?" Her answer is still relevant, though she's recently made clear that this is her most "about-me" album ever. "You're not supposed to totally know what's happening," she said. "The songs are supposed to give you clues so you can fill in the blanks." About 2,000 of us went to the Warfield last week to get confused by the new record.
The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You has, on many tracks, the weird cadence of a kid sing-songing whatever's right in front of her. Keeping that kind of lightness in such carefully made songs gives the record an eerie, sleight-of-hand quality. "Almost Midnight, Honolulu" is the best example of that, with its gleaming, near-a capella chant. At the Warfield, this was the song that quieted everybody down, everybody, every last drunk person in the back of the house who'd been dragged to the show by a girlfriend and had never heard of Neko Case — we all shut up to hear four people singing like church. Two thousand Americans shutting up would be a phenomenal sound on its own, but it's never going to happen unless ol' Red holds church. Thanks Red! It was just us and the music.
It's not all free-verse storytelling on the record, though: The Worse Things Get is a Neko Case product, and that means galloping gut-punch singalong choruses; this is someone who writes choruses about choruses. No stinting here: Juicy ones appear in "Local Girl," in "City Swans," in "Man," and in the song I'm already pretending to turn my back on because everyone else likes it too much, "Night Still Comes." Everybody up front at the concert yowled along with it, even though it was late in the set, even though nobody knows what the heck "You never held it at the right angle" means, even though most of us knew we were going to be pinned like a bug collection pretty soon since she hadn't done the a capella one yet.
After making fun of the assertive guy requesting "Red Tide" — "You sound like an NBC commentator! 'Red Tide!'" — Case decided to play "I Wish I Was the Moon," though it wasn't on the set list. Something had reminded her of a television show, apparently. "This is a tender love song I wrote for my dad that became the theme for a vampire fuckfest," she said. Wait, what? I'm not current on True Blood, and there are other shows that have vampire fuckfests? "It's okay. He doesn't care. He's dead!" She began the sweet-voiced introduction to the song, "Now I've freezing hands, and bloodless veins, as numb as I've become ... because I'm a werepanther!" and continued on blithely. Kelly Hogan, longtime co-singer, was curious what the hell Case was talking about. "Now when I sing that song," Red explained, "I can't stop thinking about Alexander Skarsgård's ass." It was just her and the music.
The Worse Things Get is a record with songs about sadness and loss — both of Case's parents and one of her grandparents passed on recently. But whether you need to fill in the blanks with butt jokes, or rage, or confusion, or "what drugs will keep night from coming," there's plenty of room for you, too.