Jen Cloher (Milk!/Remote Control)
In an excellent Guardian interview with Kate Hennessy recently Jen Cloher made the somewhat startling – for an artist rather than, say, some bile-spitting critic – declaration that her new album must be seen through the dominant lens of the lyrics; the music being “secondary” to this exercise.
She’s both right and wrong.
For a start, the music is hardly insignificant. There’s the variety: from lo-fi circular chugging that touches on Smog, and quiet earnestness of the electric troubadour, to spiky, mid-‘70s New York and lashings of pub back room indie.
Then there’s the quality itself. The circular pattern of Shoegazers offers guitars that start indifferent and build to a wall of insolence, while the leering bass of Kinda Biblical fits rather snugly its theme of disgust at the play of the political class (while giving nods to both PJ Harvey and Sonic Youth).
There’s the slacker form of Forgot Myself almost defying itself by retaining self-interest as well as ours, the irresistible ‘90s indie pop of Strong Woman, and the way Dark Art is as bare as Cloher’s back on the album cover but speaks volumes in avoiding the bleak Nick Drake-like folk plenty of others would have opted for in favour of something more like the intimacy of the best Francois Hardy.
But yeah, Cloher is right to make us pay attention to these lyrics. At every turn there are vivid images that feel not just tangible but uncomfortably true, and also some pungent observations which lay waste to a number of (easy?) targets. Among the latter being, ahem, critics who are “Pussies who want to look cool/Those can, they do/Those who can’t, review”.
Hey, I resemble that remark!
That line comes in a song that directly addresses the thing dangling at the end of half the questions thrown at Cloher these days, the success of her partner, Courtney Barnett, described here with “I went out on the road with my girlfriend/I watched her have the career most people dream”.
Typical for the insights across the record though, while Cloher doesn’t hide the bitterness, she is conscious of the transient nature of both success and the resentment which can follow, and the things that outlast them both. “No one can escape, failure and sadness breaks us open and connects us.”
It’s an interesting subject taken up in some way in The Great Australian Bite which crosses the Roberts Hughes and Forster (and Lindy Morrison and Grant McClennan), The Triffids and Clinton Walker in its brutal sweep of cultural insecurities and those who defy it.
Something else that outlasts success is the determination to be true and to be. Strong Woman begins with Cloher describing her childhood wish to be a boy who could do the things a “young lady” at a Catholic girls school could/should not, like “ride bikes with boys, kiss girls and make some noise”.
But like Cloher herself, it does not stay confined by this, extending into both the impositions on any woman to be quiet or at least unheard, and the lessons learnt to buck this: “My strength it was passed on/Proud my mother wanted respect more than love.”
Elsewhere, Cloher paints pictures of creating art (“One becomes a writer by writing, and so you devote morning to what you know”) and experiencing it (“Standing side of stage, watching people watch the Dirty Three/In one woman’s face I can see it’s the air she needs”) because it’s the answer (“These songs were the only thing that got her through 17/When life felt like a high-pitched scream”).
And of allowing love in with risk (“loving you is like a bright star/You seem closer than you are”) because it’s the reason to be (“And at night I curl into the soft animal of you/And fall asleep just to dream another day”).
There’s powerful material here and Jen Cloher wants you to approach it as she has: front-on, uncluttered, true. It pays to.