Jen Cloher’s songwriting has never shied away from honesty. Hugely respected in her native Australia, her second and third albums (Hidden Hands and In Blood Memory respectively) detailed with grace and dignity firstly of caring for her mother as she suffered with Alzheimer’s and then the experience of losing both of her parents and the subsequent rebuilding process. Her fourth album is, she says, her most honest yet and the striking simplicity of its cover (depicting an artist literally laid bare) appears to back that up. But does it live up to its billing?
Cloher answers that question from the record’s first lines, as she declares “You’ve been gone so long you could’ve been dead” on the throbbing ‘Forgot Myself’, an opening salvo which acts as both a document of the strains of maintaining her relationship with wife Courtney Barnett amid the latter’s relentless touring, and a reminder to give greater thought to self-care. Unsurprisingly the pair’s relationship features heavily on the album, with talk of beside cabinet contents and, on the chiming (and charming) lilt of ‘Sensory Memory’, breakfast rituals and Cloher’s mental preparation ahead of Barnett’s departure. They’re examples of the detail-rich imagery that peppers the record, which extends to the poetic descriptions of Australia that feature more heavily than on her previous albums and offer a projected world of pool-sipping marsupials, barbecued prawns, suburban Mynah birds and scorching tarmac (none more so than on the sweeping, gorgeous ‘Regional Echo’).
But amid the pictures of domesticity and veneer of celebration lies a record which at its core both sets its sights far wider and isn’t afraid to call out the world’s bullshit. The motorik epic of ‘Analysis Paralysis’ firmly sets its sights on conservative Australia (both with a small and large ‘c’) and the country’s right-wing leanings and persistent foot-dragging on the issue of marriage equality, while the dark, brooding ‘Kinda Biblical’ takes aim firmly Stateside toward both the current POTUS and America’s own conservatism. It’s a record that, in its journey through Cloher’s consciousness, also finds time to offer nods towards race relations (“the Australian dream is fading, stolen anyway…”), the reticence of her homeland to dream big, and the continued isolation and challenges facing a performing artist in a country with a landmass disproportionately large compared to its population.
Over the course of the record Cloher smartly documents both her own home life and the world at large with characteristically deft songwriting, as highlighted by ‘Great Australian Bite’ which uses Barnett’s return off tour as a framing device for a discussion on the plight of Australian musicians. It’s a record which, in contrast to some of the national characteristics detailed in its songs, isn’t afraid to think big and it feels all the better as a result. Thankfully, it’s also an album with the sense to put the songwriting firmly at the forefront, with Cloher’s band (featuring Barnett, bassist Bones Sloane, and drummer Jen Sholakis) augmenting and expanding her compositions without ever overpowering them or contriving to lose their message.
Jen Cloher’s been overdue wider recognition for a decade or more, and her latest album may well prove to be the vehicle that enables her to achieve it. It’s not often an artists reaches such a point four albums in but if success is forthcoming the surprise shouldn’t be that it’s happened but that it’s taken the rest of the world as long as it has to catch on. Regardless, with such an accomplished and bold new set of songs at her disposal you get the impression she’s ready to grasp whatever comes her way and run with it. Furthermore, she’s proven beyond doubt that in today’s climate of deception and underhandedness righteous honesty still has a place, and that however hard the path towards the truth (both within ourselves and in the context of the world at large) can sometimes be it can nonetheless be an exciting journey too.