Since the release of last year’s The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, her sixth album as a solo artist, Neko Case can’t seem to quit talking about gender. Songs like “Man” and “I’m From Nowhere” added to her collection of tunes that elliptically reject gender binaries, and coverage of the album rarely avoided the topic. The issue reached a fever pitch a few weeks ago when Case got in an expletive-laden Twitter spat with Playboy magazine, with whom she had already sparred with in the past, about being referred to as a “woman in music.”
When Xpress catches up with Case by phone (she’s on her farm in Vermont, preparing for a summer tour that includes a stop at the Orange Peel on Thursday, June 26) she seems set on putting discussions of label and politics aside. “I don’t really have anything to say about that,” she says bluntly. “If you want to talk about the music, that’s cool.”
And it’s easy to see why she might be frustrated by the relentless focus on feminism. The Worse Things Get is one of the finest collection of songs Case has ever assembled, with a dynamic sound that flies in the face of the relative sleepiness of 2009’s Middle Cyclone. It also marks a loaded departure for Case, who for the first time wrote autobiographically rather than using fictional stories or characters. “I don’t really write about myself [much] because I’m not that interesting,” she says. “My experiences are not unique in any way, shape or form. I try to write stories so it can involve the audience a bit more.”
Likely because of the first-person perspective, Case’s humor is alive in these songs more than her past efforts, but at its heart, the album is really about the singer’s struggle with depression. She’s been open about fighting through depression over the last few years, with the death of her grandmother and both parents, and using her workaholic personality as a bit of a coping mechanism. “The actual writing of the songs wasn’t cathartic at all,” she says. “It was really hard and did not make me feel better.” In fact, she wasn’t even sure she was going to use this set of songs but ultimately decided it was worth bringing out in the open.
“Depression is a pretty universal experience, but it’s also pretty taboo,” she says. “There’s a lot of banality in your life, and it’s hard to take yourself seriously. But I realized that, wow, there actually is funny stuff [in it]. The sheer drudgery is kind of hilarious.” The humor comes from sly one-liners like, “If I puked up some sonnets, would you call it a miracle?” and allusions to the abominable fashion trends of the 1980s. But there’s a darkness underlying much of what initially seems comical. These songs are full of self-doubt and indecision, with the laugh-out-loud moments clouded by the sense that the speaker’s unnamed trauma is lurking below the surface.
Fortunately, when Case got in the studio, she was determined to amp up the initial demos a bit. “I really just wanted to play more guitar and play guitar with other people,” she says. “I had to stretch myself out as a player and hammer off the barnacles a bit.” Case’s insistent strums, along with guitar parts by band members Jon Rauhouse and Paul Rigby, and guest spots from M. Ward and My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel, define much of the record, giving the album an energetic blast of flamboyance that often runs counter to the lyrical content. Frequent vocal collaborator Kelly Hogan is also on hand, but there’s rarely a moment where Case doesn’t seem to be taking most of the lead as she injects her soaring and reverb-laden vocals into each song with immaculate precision and poise.
That kind of charisma find its way into to the singer/songwriter’s public persona, too. She is a relatively outspoken musician with a razor-sharp wit. But, Case points out, she isn’t trying to be anything other than herself. “I’m definitely not a persona onstage,” she insists. “If I was I’d make a fool of myself.”
WHO Neko Case with Laura Veirs
WHERE The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
WHEN Thursday, June 26, at 9 p.m. $28 advance/$30 day of show