And what of quieter revolutions? That’s what I want to know when it comes to Jen Cloher. Her fourth album, self-titled and released last year, was met with zealous praise. But how much of this was surface? How much was lifted right from Cloher’s own press; an album about music, Australia and love? The problem is that these things are easy to handle in superficial ways; people can comfortably float weighty matters with distant concern. It was almost amusing to see so many polite rundowns on an album that, at times, really isn’t all that polite. Sometimes this lack of politeness is acknowledged, but more often it’s written as “searing honesty”. It’s Cloher at her most “raw”, “unflinching” and “earnestly truthful”. I suppose I felt these things too, it’s just difficult to connect with your feelings when they’re written as clichés.
What’s more interesting is how honesty is a reason to like this album. I’ve loved plenty of records that have nothing ‘honest’ to them. Worse yet, perhaps the record is honest because it’s autobiographical; it talks about ‘real’ lives and ‘real’ situations. I was quite enamoured of Jen Cloher for the remainder of last year, but it wasn’t because of the honesty of biography. The album has its own distinct authenticity, but this comes from an individualised expression, a kind of personality, rather than a life story.
Perhaps this reaction depends on what you think the record speaks to: for me Jen Cloher is an album about the progress of love. It’s the record of a person who’s working at different kinds of love. But whatever honesty there is in that, it resides less with Cloher and more with us.
Still the most culturally persistent love is romantic love. The doe-eyed optimist would say popular music is foremost about love (rather than desire). Yet Cloher is a loving/desiring person of a different kind. She’s already involved with the woman she loves and it’s completely requited. Instead the problems lay within the unexceptional and inescapable: needs, petty grievances, flaws, jealousies, patience, acceptances and compromises. Then there are the things that influence love: distance, the law, Catholicism and upbringings. So if Cloher is talking about love, then she’s also talking about some of love’s accomplices: ugliness and loneliness.
On the very first song, ‘Forget Myself’, Cloher sings, “The facts are that you’re there and I’m here / When you’re gone too long I become an idea.” We’re starting with someone who thinks that another person’s presence and love makes them a person. What allows this to work, what allows the whole album to work, is the ironic way this is treated; it’s an acknowledgement of one’s own ugly thoughts. It’s not bitter, despairing or heart breaking. It’s quite possibly the most mundane part of romantic love there is.
Or take ‘Sensory Memory’. It begins with a sweet, friendly sing-song melody, which is slowly built to a point of contention until it falls apart, leaving us stranded as the ugly reminders surface: “So you get the edges / Of the things you never say / Distance has a funny way / Of slowly making you someone / That I don’t know.” Travel and distance – whether literal or spatial – is a common trope in singer-songwriter folk-inclined songs. Yet the lines remind me of an interview with writer Zadie Smith, where Smith recalls (with good British humour) looking at her husband at breakfast one morning and realising he’s as strange to her as a person passing on a train platform. For Smith and Cloher there’s something nourishing about this loneliness; the idea that other people will always surprise you, that our knowledge is always so limited. In this way love might just be a confession of ignorance. But whatever solipsism this implies, the song (as well as the album) ends with connection: “But you know I’m always here / When you get home.” Cloher is vulnerable without coming off as pathetic; capable of love without being masochistic.
Women singing about love tend to be a bit mythical. They shimmer down, voices carried by the wings of their outstretched arms. For so long female singers were folk angels, divas or pop stars. This is because women please; they are performers of whatever fantasy is asked for. Breaking this open, as many women and gender-nonconforming people have done, means forcing music to reflect one’s own experience, which is exactly what Cloher does.
Yet sometimes this has its price, which Cloher knows because she watched her mother live it: “Proud my Mother wanted respect more than love”. What’s disappointing is not only that love has been lost, but how choices are forced and how love is conditioned by met expectations. Throughout the album self-respect is a kind of antidote to these problems. To get on with life is to be on close terms with yourself, whether others find your various qualities attractive or not. What did Joan Didion write about self-respect? “Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”
There’s ugliness in this album that’s not only present in love, but also within the metaphoric and literal ridges of place and time. The record contains a slippage between both an understanding and a rejection of Australian mythologies, which sees Cloher move between simple observation (perhaps fondness?) and disgust. Different facets of Australia get pushed against each other; the visceral everyday scene of “prawns in wheelie bins marinate” is played against the bad conscience that we’re living on stolen land; “Let’s hope Uncle Archie can pay the rent”.
There’s a flatline to how starkly and readily the gripes are listed; inaction on environmental destruction, Trump’s election, contemporary colonialism, Australians’ characteristic lack of ambition, Black Lives Matter and the effects of upward social mobility and globalisation.
While we all know the personal is political, Cloher shows us what the reverse looks like; how the political, at the level of the law, registers on the personal. She sings:
I pay my fines
Taxes on time
But the feral right
Get to decide
If I can have a wife
If I can have a wife?
We can (almost) collectively agree upon taxes, but we can’t collectively agree on love.
This tension between the stagnation of disappointment and the necessity of moving forward is everywhere: the lyrics, the music, the politics. At other times Cloher drags Australia like an unwelcome carcass; the record registers slowness, decomposition and death. Yet surely you can only be disappointed in the place you live, in the world at large, if some sense of fondness, or even love, is what’s truly at stake.
In many ways Cloher is political in a very fundamental form: she’s talking about the conditions and emotions of her life. When someone lays out what disgusts them, what they desire and love and hate, it’s not a monologue. It’s a challenge. What do you think about this place? What do you choose to love?
Albums are always implicitly a statement about their own creation and Cloher knows this. She’s a songwriter’s songwriter who’s equally invested in the pragmatics of what it takes to have a music practice, as well as questions of craft.
When speaking of her career Cloher often talks about success, lack thereof, and the shades of (dis)contentment in-between. Her first album Dead Wood Falls (2006) reached mild success but the second record Hidden Hands (2009), fell short. Even by Cloher’s own accounts, folk-country albums about family members having Alzheimer’s aren’t really Triple J’s thing. Then came In Blood Memory (2013) and now, eleven years after the first release, we have Cloher’s most popular record to date. Although we should remember that before this release she’d already been nominated for an ARIA, was a finalist for the Australian Music Prize, received generous Triple J rotation and collaborated with the likes of Tim Rogers. It’s not so bad.
Now she’s found small fame and nascent mythology. And all this for an Australian female artist whose music isn’t tied to fashion, pop or being whimsical. At the same time Cloher wryly notes the security from which she’s singing and playing: “Indie rock is full of privileged white kids / I know because I’m one of them / Who else has the luxury to gaze backwards?”
Then there are questions of craft and the scaffolding that inevitably guides any album; the subtle intimations of personality, see-sawing doubt, sacrifices, balancing sentiment and irony, rehearsing and rethinking, the pragmatic decisions of drum fills, vocal delivery and chord changes. There’s also the mystery of influence and tradition. The references that Cloher drops throughout the album read like an ode to craft; Les Murray, The Drones, The Triffids, The Go-Betweens, Sonic Youth, Dirty Three, Robert Hughes, John Keats…
Yet the song that really speaks of craft is ‘Dark Art’. Cloher sings, “Loving you is like a bright star / You seem closer than you are.” This is the necessary trick of love. It’s also the necessary trick of music; how many times has a band or artist seemed so close? How often do we think something speaks so privately to only our ears? Or maybe it hints toward the act of creating; getting close but always ultimately failing. Then just learning how to fail better.
“You have no claim on the story unless you risk a guess,” writes music critic Greil Marcus. For many people there’s a shame to guessing what a record means or says, yet ‘guessing’ has formed my dictum for listening to this album. To retreat into notions of honesty or autobiography ultimately admits to a fear of the threat that imagination poses; that to be moved by fiction, whether our own or others’, is to risk being fooled.
Listen to Jen Cloher’s Self-titled album here.
Tiarney Miekus is a Melbourne-based writer whose work has been published by The Lifted Brow, Overland, un Magazine, RealTime, Art Guide Australia, Collapse Board and Swampland Magazine. She started Difficult Fun and plays in No Sister.