Calculating conservatively, approximately 99 percent of all pop songs are about love. (The other one percent is about social or political issues—what you focus on when you don’t want to think about love.) And depending on gender, there are certain personality types we expect to sing such amorous sentiments. Men tend to be the aggressors: There’s the swaggering lothario (Justin Timberlake) and the soulful lover (Maxwell); on the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the sensitive wimp (Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard). For women, it’s more bankable to be alluring—whether that comes in the form of the confident straight shooter (Beyoncé), the girlie pinup (Katy Perry) or the coquettish ingenue (Taylor Swift)—or to reject outright such conventions and be a hell-hath-no-fury flamethrower (Fiona Apple).
This gender divide in love songs largely reflects assumed societal differences between the sexes: Assertive men pursue fetching, docile women in an endless game of boy-meets-girl. So where does that leave Neko Case and her great new record, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You? In a class of their own.
For three straight albums, the singer-songwriter (who turns 43 in early September) has crafted atmospheric, intelligent, incredibly emotional songs that have little interest in the simplistic male-female dynamic that exists in most music—to say nothing of the larger cultural representations of women as either cutie pies (Zooey Deschanel in New Girl), “adorable” nincompoops (the comic-strip character Cathy) or stereotypically—and faintly condescendingly— “strong” heroines (Bella of Twilight).
In her quiet, handmade fashion, Case dances around gender archetypes the same way her music sidesteps easy categorization: too experimental to be called alt-country, too expansive to be pigeonholed as indie rock.
Though she grew up in Washington state, Case first came to prominence circa 2000 as part of the New Pornographers, a Canadian indie-pop unit for which she mostly served as a vocalist. She recorded country-ish solo albums starting in the late 1990s, but 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood was her creative breakthrough. A fable-like collection of enigmatic songs that touches on rock, country and gospel, Fox Confessor offers evocative scenarios filled with dead bodies and failed loves but eschews concrete explanations. To pick a song at random, the dreamy “Star Witness” makes mention of a drowned lover, a stoned couple heading off to do some babysitting and a woman wandering around in her nightgown. What any of those sketchbook scenarios has to do with any of the others is left teasingly to the imagination.
“A writer once called it ‘country noir,’” Case told NPR when asked to describe her style, “which kind of relates it to country, but it’s also kind of cinematic at the same time, which is the way I feel about it. I think my songwriting might be a little more on the darker side. … I like to give people hints or words that make visual pictures for them.”
Her 2009 follow-up, Middle Cyclone, continued in the same vein as she flexed her narrative muscles, spotlighting several songs sung in the voices of other characters. “This Tornado Loves You” is from the perspective of an enamored twister, while an unapologetic killer whale defends its animalistic urges on “People Got A Lotta Nerve.” (And on “Vengeance Is Sleeping,” she confesses, “I’m not the man you thought I was.”)
Blessed with one of the great modern voices—sexy but also filled with longing and power—Case can sound both feminine and masculine. And because her actual romantic life has been kept out of the tabloids—she’s one of the few celebrities who doesn’t have a “Personal Life” section on Wikipedia—she can sing in different guises about doomed love without listeners being able to put a face on the person she’s addressing. (“All I need is my truck to make me happy,” she told a journalist, probably somewhat in jest, in 2000. “I don’t need a boyfriend, don’t need a house. Just a truck.”)
Her latest album is no less lovely, idiosyncratic or mysterious. The intense, protracted title might suggest it’s the product of a bitter, exasperated woman beaten down by romantic woes. But Case’s generosity and good humor are all over The Worse Things Get. Now at an age when her contemporaries are singing about marriage and families—or cataloging the divorces that broke those families apart—Case is still singing about the road not traveled, which she knows full well is far more difficult as a woman. “It’s weird to look down and go, ‘Yeah, I’m 42, and I’m in a world that doesn’t really think it’s very normal to be single, not have any kids and be a straight American woman in her 40s,’” Case recently told Billboard. “It’s like, ‘Are you crazy? Why don’t you have these things?’ I had to go through all of my personal paperwork and go, ‘I really did choose that. I own it.’”
She’s always been an outsider, a free thinker and a bit of a tomboy. (She started off in punk bands, and she attended art school.) But The Worse Things Get positively aches with a sense of regret mixed with the fiery determination of an individual asserting herself, societal expectations be damned. Pop music has no place for her, which is too bad for pop music.
Too smart—and frankly too old—to be one of those shiny young pop starlets who sing about love with superficial life-or-death stakes, Case looks at relationships with a weathered uncertainty. On The Worse Things Get, the potential of new love is often tempered with the fear of loss of independence or identity—a perpetuation of a male-centric society. On the opener, “Wild Creatures,” the narrator’s father asks, “Hey, little girl, would you like to be the king’s pet or the king?” The narrator’s answer: the king, though she realizes the unconventional choice will lead only to loneliness. On the next track, the smoky cabaret pop of “Night Still Comes,” Case laments her predicament of wanting to be seen as an assertive person in a world that too often views women as objects of beauty, purity and demureness: “Did they poison my food? / Is it ’cause I’m a girl? / If I puked up some sonnets / Would you call me a miracle?”
Other female songwriters, such as Fiona Apple and Lucinda Williams, have wrestled with the repercussions of rejecting the idea of being dependent on a man, often producing songs that are full of despair or anger. But Case’s default emotion seems to be sympathy. Very rarely are there villains in her songs—she has an amazing ability to understand her characters, whether fictional or some figment of herself. If Middle Cyclone’s “Vengeance Is Sleeping” goes out of its way to show the point of view of an oaf who realizes too late he let a good woman go, the new album’s “Man” also digs into the faulty logic of man’s-man thinking. Over a hard-charging rhythm, Case’s macho narrator proudly announces, “I’m not the runt of the litter / The fat-finger bullies were no match for me / So taste them in my teeth / I’m a man” before acknowledging that such masculine bravado often runs counter to his longings for love: “If I’m dipshit drunk on the pink perfume / I am the man in the fucking moon / ’Cause you didn’t know what a man was / Until I showed you.”
The typical “confessional” singer-songwriter bares his or her soul with intimate, sometimes diary-like details over straightforward arrangements—the simpler the music the better, so as not to get in the way of the words. Case goes in the opposite direction. Not only does she hide behind fiction and metaphor, she decorates her songs with different sonic elements: a swirl of background vocals, a dab of horns, some well-placed reverb to make a skeletal track feel more expansive and haunted. At worst, the aural noodling inspires criticism about pretentiousness, but more often than not Case’s ambitiousness allows her material to transcend the tired boy-girl dynamic of most relationship songs.
On the torch-singer folk of “Calling Cards,” Case plays a narrator stealing some time at a pay phone to make a long-distance call to his or her lover back home. The spare strumming and the far-off saxophone intensify the track’s sense of isolation. It’s as close as she gets on the album to a traditional love song, but the fragment of story is so opaque it’s suggestive rather than declarative, giving “Calling Cards” an almost literary grandeur. As throughout The Worse Things Get, the melancholy is piercing without being precious or oppressive. (There’s even a joke in “Calling Cards,” with Case’s character summarizing a heartfelt conversation with a few dismissive “blah blah blah”s.)
Not all of the album’s love songs are of the romantic variety: Check out the deeply affecting “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu,” a moody, spare number sung by Case to a child she observed waiting at the bus stop with her mother. To Case’s horror, the mom berates the little girl silently, in the hopes no one around can hear: “Get the fuck away from me / Why don’t you ever shut up?” The song becomes an ode to that upset little girl, with Case consoling her with words that the singer might have used on herself in the past, “Some days you feel like a cartoon / And people will rush to make excuses for you / You’ll hear yourself complain / But don’t you ever shut up / Please, kid, have your say / Because I still love you / Even if I don’t see you again.”
It’s possible the entire incident was invented, but regardless, it’s another example of how Case wraps her arms around the characters she comes across. In place of finding a satisfying long-term mate, Case seems to have chosen to love everyone, seeking out the painful parts of ourselves and offering some comfort.
With Case drawing on unconventional love songs and diverse characters to plumb some core truth about herself, The Worse Things Get suggests a reflective individual trying to make sense of how she got here. Since Fox Confessor, Case has created a genuinely unique persona we don’t see much in pop music. More thoughtful and mature and funnier than the typical female artist types, she’s also not trying to ape the hunter-gatherer characteristics of her male counterparts. Perhaps the album’s mission statement is articulated best in “I’m From Nowhere,” a country ballad about a musician new to L.A. who’s encountered a would-be (male) Svengali. “I was surprised when you called me a lady,” she sings, “because I’m still not so sure that’s what I want to be.” She doesn’t want other people’s labels and expectations. She just wants to be herself, whoever that turns out to be.
Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo by Samantha Abernethy/Flickr