Music

Honest, brave, thoughtful and affecting, Jen Cloher’s new album is a bold masterpiece

Album’s like Jen Cloher are the reason why I write about music. It is also the kind of album that inspired me to pick up a guitar when I was 13 years old, and rather than persevere through the monotony of shredding lessons, try to craft a song of my own. It is an album that is brimming with ideas, personality, feeling and musicality.

It is also the first album in Melbourne-based artist Jen Cloher‘s respected career to bare her own name as its title. This is a clear indication of not only the belief that she has in this collection of songs, but also the themes that she set out to explore in them.

It is part confessional, part devotional, and as personal as music can be. It is a bold statement that encompasses where she is from, who she is, and then sets out to detail her fears, ambitions and dreams with striking clarity, intimacy and poise.

jen cloher

Part confessional, part devotional, and as personal as music can be, Jen Cloher’s self-titled new album is something to behold, treasure and learn from.

The album is entirely her own. However, those that take up position in her life are given space in both the lyrics and her band.

Cloher’s partner in life, love and business, Courtney Barnett steps back from the microphone and lends her considerable talents as a lead guitarist to the record. Her performance is never excessive and tends to lean towards a supporting roll; accenting and emphasising where appropriate. However, when called upon her needling melodic lines provide a great foil to Cloher’s stark, almost spoken at times, vocal delivery.

Fellow Aussies Bones Sloane, who stars in the recently released (and completely gorgeous) clip for single Regional Echo, and Jen Sholakis complete the line-up, on bass and drums respectively. Both players perform their roles with nuance and skill; providing thunder when called upon, and stirring moments of quiet too.

The album, mostly recorded in a live environment, captures a lovely fluid energy between the players that is a bit of a rarity these day. No super producer required*. Sometimes good players with great songs should be left alone.

And great songs they are. This is the kind of music that is best enjoyed with the lyrics in front of you. Not because Cloher is difficult to understand, but because they serve to keep you present and focused. The lyrics that are woven through these songs inform the music, and when taken in together tell a story in the fullest sense.

Forgot Myself, Sensory Memory and Dark Art are songs of love, affection and yearning; yet the lyrics are so specific and idiosyncratic that they could only be about Cloher’s relationship with Barnett. It is a wonder then that they feel as universal as they do. But they do. In the hands of a writer as empathetic as Cloher, the personal is indeed universal.

It is also very political. Strong Woman wastes little breath on misogynists and instead focuses on the unnecessary restrictions that prescribed gender roles and religious institutions attempt to place on women. Towards the end of the song, in an impassioned bellow, Cloher draws a parallel between her resistance and Maori ancestry. It’s thought-provoking and powerful.

Shoegazers explores privilege in the creative industries with similarly biting results. No one is spared a dose of Cloher’s venom; herself and yours truly included.

Some of the most powerful songs in this collection focus on Cloher’s mixed feelings about Australia. She characterises it as the small town of the world that no one ever really escapes, at least not without losing a piece of themselves first.

It is a sentiment that is difficult to argue with, but one that is tempered by Cloher’s obvious appreciation and understanding of the Australian psyche. When she lionises The Dirty Three in Loose Magic, and references the plight of cult Australian acts The Triffids, The Saints and The Go-Betweens in The Great Australian Bite, it is apparent that her scorn is born of frustration.

At one point Cloher likens the situation to crabs struggling against each other to escape a bucket. It is a rich metaphor that will hit most Australians in the gut. If it doesn’t, you’re probably the bucket.

There is an awful lot to admire about this record. It is honest, brave, thoughtful and affecting without ever coming across as being manipulative. It also doesn’t hurt that it sounds so bloody rad. However, it is a record that will ruffle the odd feather.

At one point she refers to critics as pussies that lack talent. It kind of hurt my feelings…which might kind of prove her point. But that’s ok. I’m prepared to suffer the odd indignity if Cloher keeps making records this brilliant. It’s a deal that is far fairer than that offered to most Aussie musos. As Cloher puts it,

“We’re all from down under / Where no one hears our thunder / Signing shitty deals just to make it work”

Amen.

*Although it should be noted that recording engineer Greg Walker and mixing engineer Tom Schick have done a great job in capturing the magic of this project.