“I was surprised when you called me a lady / ’Cuz I’m still not so sure that’s what I want to be,” Neko Case sings on “I’m From Nowhere” on her latest album The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.
But she doesn’t really sound so unsure: Other than dropping a few F-bombs, Case sounds nothing but ladylike here, as she coos her way through a dozen pleasant-sounding songs that bear little resemblance to her brash alt-country beginnings or to her side-project work in the pop group The New Pornographers and the punk outfit Maow. She’s settled into the safety of contemporary indie-folk, giving The Worse Things Get… the same kind of innocuous sound as radio-friendly groups like The Civil Wars and Of Monsters And Men.
Case’s voice is certainly still strong, but she doesn’t use it the same way she used to: Gone are the feisty belting numbers that found her wailing about heartbreak or asserting her self-sufficiency. The closest she gets here is the cheerily uptempo power-pop tune “Man,” which almost channels the Case of yesteryear. She nonchalantly asserts her strength and manliness, but the lyrics are chock-full of little phrases that sound good but have no substance (“I’m a man’s man, always been”) that it’s hard to take her seriously.
The rest of the album is equally uninspiring. She massages every word on “Bracing For Sunday,” yet other than one intriguing couplet about exacting revenge for an incestuous pregnancy, the song itself is barely memorable. The a cappella tune “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” tells the sad tale of a verbally abusive mother, but Case’s sweetly echoing “I’m sorry” only apologizes to the child for it happening. Maybe she should apologize for not intervening.
And yet, even amid songs about catching shooting stars, there is still the occasional gem here; “Calling Cards” captures the ache of long-distance love conveyed via pay phone. It’s a sweetly tender moment on an album of songs that seem to be about love and loss but never quite connect emotionally, almost as though Case is so wrapped up in seeming ladylike that she never really remembers to let go.