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 turned 43 last 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 The 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 fablelike 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.’”