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Jen Cloher – I Am The River, The River Is Me (Album Review)

Jen Cloher

I Am The River, The River Is Me (Album Review)

By Captain Stavros

It’s Saturday night.  We’re staying in and already regretting it because we’re reviewing Jen Cloher’s, yet to be released album, I Am The River, The River Is Me.  It’s been sitting in our inbox gathering dust for weeks.  ‘Mana Takatāpui’, the title track, plunks on through our headphones, then steadily crescendos in a chorus of voices, suddenly cutting out and replaced by Jen’s singular voice, ‘I know you’re weak/ I know you struggle just to blink’; shots fired.  In fairness though, she’s definitely got our number and our attention but what about yours?  Does she have the stuff to back it up and keep us all interested?  Let’s make a deal, shall we?  Neither of us, going forward (to the end of this article at least), will ever live a life of regrets again or dwell on the past.  We’re in the here and now so let’s, instead, crack this joint wide open together.  Play.

If you’re expecting the usual folky, classic, stoner rock, you’re in for a surprise.  Jen’s pushing the boat out, both musically and lyrically.  Graduating from something lost in the background, I Am The River, The River Is Me, is technically sound from both an instrumental and lyrical standpoint.  Shedding sophomoric predictable guitar and drums, this album elevates.  Don’t get us wrong, songs like ‘Fear is a Forest’, covered by Courtney/Kurt, are great jams and so is her self-titled album but familiarity breeds resentment.

‘Mana Takatāpui’ is a different story though.  Hey, I know/ I still gotta a way to go/ but I think I see’, we continue navigating around these great lyrics and gorgeous vocals coupled alongside slide guitar which, to our pleasure, is peppered through the opener, but only just.  What we enjoy most about this track is its message.  Don’t trade down from a queen for a joker, ‘If you won’t let me be the love of your life then I’ll be the loss of your life’.  This was the first song we’d heard from Jen, truth be told, and it hit differently; put on that scuba gear cause it’s time we dove deep.

"In 2019 I typed the words ‘Māori word for Queer’ into Google. The word ‘takatāpui’ flashed onto my screen with this description: ‘Takatāpui is the Māori word meaning a devoted partner of the same sex. In Western terminology, a person who identifies as takatāpui is a Māori individual who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Takatāpui is used nowadays in response to the Western construction of "sexuality, gender, and corresponding identity expressions. I typed my newfound word into the Māori Dictionary app and listened to it being spoken. It was beautiful. The extended ahh after the k, giving it a luxuriousness as it rolled off the speaker's tongue. I marvelled at the idea of one word that could explain my sexuality, gender and cultural identity. What an incredible language!

Reminiscing, rather than living in the past, is a way of reflecting on the past whilst keeping a foot in the in the moment.  Jen explores and draws on her life’s themes throughout this album but draws a clear line in the sand on where she stands on each of them.  The pronounced stance really elevates her work giving lost love, lost moments, and the visceral musings of these stolen moments and the hold they have over you.  ‘Harakeke’, track two, paints vivid pictures permeating throughout the album, feeling holds a broken heart that’s grieving rising through my lungs.  Thoughts, as endless as days bleeding into even longer nights on the Mesa, float by the forefront of our mind as we sink deeper into the album.  What’s the feeling before thinking?  A playful thought exercise is teased out by vocals, theremin in the background and slide guitar.  A sadness, without melancholy, sets an unhurried pace.

Can an album have a hook?  If so, ‘My Witch’ is it.  More My-My-My distortion, Jen sheds all elements of familiarity to her music for an electronic upgrade.  This slapper reshapes the whole narrative of where we thought the album was headed, ‘slay me with your mind/ couldn’t give a damn about size when your head’s between my thighs/ I don’t care what no-one-think/ set a thirst trap watch me drink’.  Wow, completely unrestrained lyrically.  Musically, it feels honest but it also drips of filthily playful charged confidence.  Think Doja Cat Rules (a personal fave if you’re reading this D.C.).  ‘Being Human’ changes tack in theme only, as the energy still carries through, and starts tackling political issues Jen closely identifies with and the charged anger accompanying them.  Specifically, and unsurprisingly for the indigenous people around the planet, the untaught history and whitewashing of the very land they’re learning on fuels the lyrics, ‘stolen land I can’t possess/ don’t turn away from the shame/ being human is learning how to let go of what you think you know/ staying human is listening, listening’.  Inspiring and tender lyrics, to be sure, but one can’t help imagine the drumstick striking the snare throughout this blusterous track really sounding like a fist smashing into a colonizer’s face, repeatedly and without fatigue.  It’s pretty great.  ‘The Wild’s plea to leave the wild things where they are, worlds you were never meant to see, leaves us with mixed feelings.  Firstly, we agree with the message but secondly, we want to see everything, always, all the time.  Jen carries on, science is golden but so is mystery, evolution is a bore, close the door and stop classifying things.  Knowing what you’ve lost doesn’t make you found.  Damn you and your irrefutable logic!  Our favourite lyrics on the album, a love song to the mysterious seductively sung with hushed vocals.  A message we really enjoyed, inclusion, not integration, of both elements.

Speaking of inclusive elements, we popped into Third Man Records over the weekend and caught up with a session drummer that spilt some goss, about what’s now a former, band’s upcoming third record. ‘It wasn’t what you’d be expecting of a 3rd record’.  I of course nodded in agreement, not knowing what in the hell they were talking about in the slightest, but it got me thinking, what would someone expect of a fifth?  I don’t think Jen cares.  Jen resides on unyielded Wurundjeri land, which is just about the most badass thing I’ve ever read.  The album has forms of unyielding stapled throughout it.  Nothing on the album hits like ‘Mana Takatāpui’, or ‘My Witch’ but, as a whole, it yields nothing and gives us everything.  This is a pleasing album because it feels like she’s found new depths and a message which she executes near perfectly.  For us, the album could’ve been three songs shorter, the last three, because the flow of the former feels short changed in order to hit double digits, quality give way to quantity.  An expressive album rooted in both belief and message throughout with top marks for musical innovation on Jen’s behalf, we’ll be keeping an eye on this one.


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