I was sitting on the couch when I saw the mail truck come up the road & I waited until the postman had his back to my door before I peered out the front window to see if anything had been left for me. It was a good mail day – three packages, one of which was my preorder of the deluxe edition of Neko Case’s new album The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. I had listened to the album a handful of times via NPR’s First Listen feature, but it’s hard to really experience something at your desk when your phone won’t stop ringing and your co-workers are chatting by the coffee machine and someone is running off a thousand copies at the copier. I am trying to make the space in my life to listen to music more intentionally, but it hasn’t been easy.
The deluxe edition of the album came with a CD, so while I drove from the west side of Cleveland out to the east side, I listened. Driving past empty factories, past the baseball stadium, around dead man’s curve. There’s new graffiti on a building just past the MLK exit. It says, “PROVOKE” in black and white letters. I listen quietly throughout the drive and when it’s over, I listen again.
While I drove, I thought about a book that I had just finished – Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain. St. Germain’s memoir is spare and gritty, recounting the death of his mother at the hands of her boyfriend in their home not far from Tombstone, AZ. St. Germain writes quietly and thoughtfully about masculinity, violence, and the terrible but invisible darkness that can grow between people. Son of a Gun is a sometimes beautiful but always unflinching meditation on violent death and the questions a murder leaves behind.
The opening line of the album’s first song (“Wild Creatures”) is: When you catch the light, you look just like your mother. Maybe it was just the word “mother” that got me thinking about St. Germain’s book, still so fresh in my mind, but each song called up some memory of a scene from Son of a Gun & even though Case’s album is a wholly independent piece of art, I couldn’t stop putting the two in conversation with each other.
Case’s songs and St. Germain’s memoir are tinged with sadness and violence – men are cruel to women; parents are cruel to their children; and in the end, we are all alone. Maybe this is just the human condition? Listening to songs like “Man,” “Afraid,” and “Local Girl” – I think of St. Germain’s mother. A woman who seemed not unlike the moms of so many of my friends growing up.
I don’t mean to suggest that Case’s album is wholly and unforgivably dark – there are moments of levity & a thread of strength runs throughout every song, but I can’t help thinking of Lynda Barry’s writing on resilience in her book One! Hundred! Demons! – are resilience and strength too easily conflated? What do we gain and lose when we steel ourselves to trauma, to sadness? Is resilience a kind of forgetting? How do we negotiate strength and what kind of mediation of our feelings and memories do we engage in when we seek to be resilient?
Read Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain. Listen to The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. Think about the things that are going wrong, think about how you fight, think about what you love. Think about what makes you feel strong, search out your muscles and flex them.