At its core, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You is a tale of depression – a dark tunnel we burrow deep within ourselves in reaction to the troubles experienced on the long road of life. Right from the opener, “Wild Creatures”, Neko Case sounds reserved, turning her force-of-nature voice into the quiet sound of strength, unwavering in the face of regret, self-doubt, and the pit of unrelenting sadness.
But, this isn’t some sad-sack album built around woe and ruin, it’s constructed on a fierce will determined to break through into the light. “Wild Creatures” may start in a meditative manner, but it bursts free as Case wields her voice as a weapon – a master in full control of her strengths, cutting down the hypocrites and naysayers with her words. On “Man” she uses those strengths to take on gender politics with a fury aimed specifically at a lover who let her down. “You didn’t know what a man was, until I showed you,” she says, her voice filled with more anger than the loudest of metal bands. Then there’s the wistful “Local Girl”, where Case deplores her former friends and lovers with a gentle, yet unforgiving “all of you lie about someday”, a slap in the face to those who wronged her with broken promises and turned their back when she needed them the most. That she follows it up with “goddamn the time, goddamn the miles that take me away from you and change your face” is as raw as it gets, showcasing the pitfalls of emotion and humanity with the hypocrisy of anger in the face of longing.
The Worse Things Get isn’t all righteous indignation and verbal vengeance – there’s plenty of beauty and humor mixed in. The gorgeous “I’m From Nowhere” plays as a road song, but it’s tender footnotes take the listener through an almost stream-of-conscious tale that includes a distaste for puffy sleeves and the unsettling sound of an e-brake hitting the ground. “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” is especially devastating – with just Case and Kelly Hogan’s voices detailing the tale of a mother verbally abusing her child. On that detail alone the song is a showstopper, but Case turns the song inward, subtly tracing it back to her own childhood before ending it with the powerful refrain “I still love you, even if I don’t see you again.”
Great records grow with time, unlocking their secrets with each respective listen. With its unconventional song structures and heavy themes, The Worse Things Get may be tough at first, but as it opens up it offers a warm listening experience, becoming the aural equivalent to a trusted friend. By the time it gets to the album closer, “Ragtime”, it’s become a record of hope, with Case emerging from her depression with the words “I’ll reveal myself invincible soon” along with a chorus of trumpets, bringing the album closer to the light as it slowly fades out.