Album Review: Jen Cloher (2017)

It’s almost too prosaic a point to make but there’s a curious aspect of our attitude to music and musicians as artists. It’s perhaps the one artform where we desire, if not insist upon a direct connection between art, artist and listener/reader/viewer.

We’re quite comfortable with the idea of unreliable narrators and so on in literature, for example. We don’t read Brighton Rock operating on the assumption that Graham Greene is a psychotic hoodlum or Harry Potter for an insight into JK Rowling’s life as a wizard. It’s an easier process in theatre, TV and cinema, of course. We don’t assume de Niro or Pacino are, in fact, violent gangsters, or that Downey Jr or Gadot are superpowered heroes. We’re perfectly happy to accept the distance between artist and performance.

And yet it persists in music. At some level, we still feel that it’s Jagger who can’t get no satisfaction, that it’s Dylan who’s alright and only bleeding, that Cohen is last year’s man, that Morrissey is the charming man in question. Historical marketing and branding are partly responsible for this, as is the established structure of pop and rock performance.

But it also possibly has something to do with the close relationship between traditional rock (and sometimes pop) and lyric poetry. Many of the greatest musical lyricists — Dylan, Cohen, Patti Smith, Billy Bragg — are also recognised as legitimate poets, ones whose collected works we can go into a bookshop and find ranked with the likes of Auden, Heaney and Thomas.

Jen Cloher’s latest album positively invites this kind of biographical reading

It’s a perfectly reasonable connection to make and we do, for whatever reason, tend to operate on the assumption that the poet is somehow speaking to us personally through their lines. Much ink has been spilt about how Plath’s poetry, for instance, is giving us an insight into her troubled personal life. The same goes for Ted Hughes, of course, although we can see both attempts to resist it (Crow) and to invite it (Birthday Letters) in his work. Similarly, we look for signs of personal vision and madness in Smart and Blake, of religious fervour in Dickinson, of Beatitude and dissolution in Ginsberg and Bukowski. This connection only seems to be successfully short-circuited if the poet takes sustained and deliberate pains to emphasise the creation of dramatic character in his work, as Crow, or Browning’s dramatic monologues.

In music too, it is possible to break this connection. The extreme theatricality of prog rock, for instance, allowed its practitioners for the most part to disappear behind layers of make-up and bombast, but the cost of that was a perceived lack of credibility. By contrast, Bowie, who perhaps had a wider, more panoramic grasp of the artform than anyone else, performed something of the same trick as Browning and you can perhaps see the various stages of his recording career as a series of dramatic monologues, or at least until he had managed to free himself of issues of audience projection but without any corresponding loss of authenticity.

I only bring all this up because Australian singer Jen Cloher’s latest album positively invites this kind of biographical reading. It’s certainly a multi-stranded work but it’s hard to miss her examination of how she deals with the stratospheric success of her partner Courtney Barnett and the strains that she perceives it as putting on their relationship: ‘The facts are that you’re there and I’m here/When you’re gone too long I become an idea.’ The song (Forgot Myself) is also a rumination on growing old, on missed opportunities (See my reflection staring back in the glass/I’m getting older/I know, that things don’t last’). And on Sensory Memory: ‘Distance has a funny way/Of slowly making you someone/That I don’t know’.

It’s to Cloher’s credit that while there’s a definite element of self-examination and perhaps even criticism here, it never descends into bitterness or pettiness. (Barnett is, as usual, a key collaborator on the album.) And indeed, it ends on a tender note of love in Dark Art: (‘Loving you is like a dark art/Somewhere between head and heart/We’re together miles apart’).

But lyrically, Cloher’s relationship with Barnett is only one aspect of this album and she takes aim at subject like politics in Analysis Paralysis (the feral right/Get to decide/If I can have a wife), or sexual identity in Strong Woman (Never fit in/To love was to live in sin) or the music industry in general in Shoegazers (‘Indie rock is full of privileged white kids/I know because I’m one of them’).  Another high point is a look back at the evolution of Australian scene of the 70s and 80s and the difficulty Aussie acts had in winning any kind of recognition beyond their native shores: ‘the Saints were stranded/Lindy, Grant and Robert/Had to go between/Just to be heard’ (Great Australian Bite).

This multi-layered nature of the lyrics is also reflected in the music. Broadly speaking, I suppose what we’re talking about here is kind of alt-country, although to me Forgot Myself brings to mind mid-70s Lou Reed and Strong Woman reminds me very much of early PJ Harvey. And Analysis Paralysis, which I’d argue is probably the key track on the album, has both the rolling bohemian amble of the Velvet Underground but also something of the loose association rambling fusion of the personal and political of Patti Smith.

What the album doesn’t perhaps have is the easy-going beatnik chirpiness that has brought Barnett such success. In both lyrics and music, Cloher is too suffused in the cynicism of age for that. (And this should not be taken as a criticism of either artist. You could even argue that Cloher is here being the Cohen to Barnett’s Dylan, the Lennon to her McCartney, or perhaps even the Forster to her McLennan.) But what is certain is that she’s produced a remarkable album, one that is highly unlikely to be bettered this year. Indeed, more than that, it does seem to have captured something of the current spirit of the age that could lead to it becoming an enduring classic.

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