Boys Do Cry
Issue #47 – September/October 2013 – MGMT
It was an image that burned through the blogosphere in the spring of 2009—Neko Case crouching on the hood of a 1967 Mercury Cougar, ready to pounce as she brandished a sword on the cover of her Middle Cyclone album. The reason it struck a chord was easy enough to understand: besides being a striking image, it was the perfect visual representation of the persona she had perfected over the previous 10 years. Like her music, it was both playful and powerful, rooted in the iconography of the past but made modern by her distinctively provocative presence. Like her gift for a wicked turn of phrase, the image was a potent statement, capturing a sexy but not sexualized woman. But as much as Neko Case, the artist, has created a persona that is inextricably tied to her recorded work, she has kept Neko Case, the person, largely out of her songs, buried under the mountain of murderers, lovers, foxes, lions, tigers, bees, birds, and meteorological events that populate her work and occasionally act as her proxies. On her sixth studio album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, the central character is finally Neko Case.
“Well, you can’t not put yourself in there, but I try not to make myself the focus—on this record, it is,” she admits. When she says those words they sound more like a confession than a boast, as if making such an album was unintentional but unavoidable. “I spent a good portion of the last four years being pretty darn depressed and grieving for people who died and people who left and parts of my life that I had never stopped to grieve for before. My body was like, ‘All right, you’ve run from this. Now you have to look at it. You’ve had your deferment long enough. You can’t go on and become who you want to be before you look at this,’ which is something everyone goes through. They either look at it or they don’t. I fought it for a long time, and then I finally gave in.”
Having spent the last 13 years essentially pursuing two full-time careers—writing, recording, and touring in support of both her solo albums and membership in The New Pornographers—giving in was a luxury Case couldn’t afford. Following the success of 2009’s Middle Cyclone, a critical and commercial smash that pushed Case to number three on the Billboard 200 and garnered Grammy nominations, she was burned out and exhausted. Feeling disconnected from the old Neko, she started writing songs that were uncharacteristically direct and identifiably drawn from her experience as a musician whose job description entails spending long stretches of time torn from those she cares about most.
Those themes aren’t unique in her catalog, but where she once portrayed herself as a self-destructive force of nature that unintentionally harms those she pulls into her orbit, here she is far more direct. Gone are the anthropomorphized animals, cataclysmic event metaphors, and twisted character sketches that had been used to such great effect on recent albums, replaced with weary tour travelogues (“I’m From Nowhere”) and lonely phone calls from the road (“Calling Cards”), songs that play as conversations with and apologies to those from whom she feels distant and displaced. She develops those feelings of distance from her pre-depression self on “Where Did I Leave That Fire,” wondering if someone would recover her lost spark “on the curb idling” and call her to come reclaim it if she can produce an appropriate ID.
Most striking of all is “Man,” a hard-driving anthem that appears to both celebrate and poke fun at traditional notions of masculinity. Though the album is largely a reflective and low-key affair, it’s the one moment where the old Neko barges in to throw some elbows, a statement of empowerment that the benefits of manhood shouldn’t be available only to men. Where she once declared herself a “man eater,” now she’s content to call herself a man.
“In the world of the animal kingdom, like on nature shows, if they’re talking about a lioness hunting and get a zebra, they don’t say, ‘She’s a lioness, not a lion. Keep that in mind, everybody,'” she says. “As for the animals we are, we’re all men. Mankind. Human. Woman. Man. It’s all the same thing. If I know a five-year-old girl in a little pink dress that tells me she’s a man in that moment and she believes that, I believe her. If it makes her happy at that moment, I’m going to go with it. And if she grows up and says, ‘Yeah, I’m wearing this pink dress, but inside I’m a man. Even if at the gynecologist I’m a woman, I’m a man.’ Great! If that makes you feel cool and happy about yourself, right on! I’m not not into being a lady, but I’m not into just being a lady. According to our law, I have all the rights and privileges of any other man, so I’m going to take advantage of it.”
Ultimately, The Worse Things Get… is a different kind of album that deserves a different kind of imagery, both lyrical and visual, than the tender-but-tough caricature that is typical in her work. If there’s an image that indicates that the new Neko and the old Neko have been reconciled with a sense of humor, it’s the photo that was released to promote the “Man” single. No muscle cars, no imposing stare, no implements of death. Instead: standing beside a horse, she stares into the distance, decked out in cowboy garb, wearing a mustache.
[This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s September/October 2013 issue.]