3.5 stars (out of 4)
On her 2009 album, “Middle Cyclone,” Neko Case declared, “I’m a man eater.” On the follow-up, “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You” (Anti), Case modifies that declaration: “I’m a man’s man."
Scoff at your peril. In Case’s albums, there’s little distance between the primal and the philosophical, wildness and wisdom. Her characters demand to be heard. “I am fighting to be wild,” she sings. But the toughness is earned, a necessary way to cope with the death and despair that cling to these songs.
Case’s stirring voice – an instrument that draws on the transparency of punk and the open-heartedness of country – centers the arrangements. She’s always been celebrated for her vocal and songwriting skills, but she also brings a visionary flair to her production, which blends church harmonies, chamber-rock elegance, rough-hewn guitars, even avant-garde textures. Tiny details become indelible landmarks – the ringing bells in “Local Girl,” the tumbling piano in “Wild Creatures,” the sonar blips of “Where Did I Leave that Fire?”
After the stomping “Man” and the accusatory “Night Still Comes,” the album pivots on the haunting, a cappella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” a snapshot of a heart-breaking moment at a bus stop. Case has lost parents and friends in recent years, and the songs brim with ghostly reminders, images of lone figures calling from the road and roaming empty streets. Yet against the surreal backdrop of “Where Did I Leave that Fire?,” a sly humor surfaces: “You can pick it up, if you come down with I.D.” Redemption arrives with the closing “Ragtime,” which doesn’t sound like ragtime jazz at all, but evokes its spirit. Triumphant horns announce that even in the midst of a blizzard blowing into town sideways, there is hope: “The white-crowned sounds of possible, the sound that lures me.” It’s music, fighting to be wild.