Music review: Jen Cloher opens her heart

Anyone who is a fan of the femme rock of the 1990s would have experienced the feels when Fiona Apple reached out to the suicidal Irish iconoclast Sinead O'Connor last week via YouTube showing solidarity.

"I wish I could be of some use to you. I'm your friend - that's all I want to say - and you're my hero," said Apple in the video, recorded ostensibly in her own bedroom.

A similar emotion is felt as one listens to the fourth and self-titled album by Melbourne-based singer- songwriter, Jen Cloher, who opens up her heart on anxiety, compassion fatigue and, yes, jealousy.

She is partner to fellow Aussie Courtney Barnett, who was an indie breakout star in 2015 and had to leave home and tour relentlessly.

"You've been gone for so long you could have been dead/Piles of books you bought but never read," goes the opening salvo in Forgot Myself, part ballad, part b***hin' confessional, as she wrestles with feelings of insecurity and abandonment.

Her voice is flat and unadorned. The guitars are febrile, akin to those first heard on PJ Harvey's Rid Of Me (1993).



    Jen Cloher


    4/5 stars

"Oh god I forgot myself/Oh god I forgot my health," is the half-rhyming chorus delivered with such snarling lips. The prickliness perks and makes you laugh and cry.

Her despair at the state of the world - from the rise of extremism to a certain president - is addressed in Analysis Paralysis, a jeremiad sung with unerring calmness.

"My first world guilt/Makes me feel/Like I really care," she selflacerates, as the rhythm section keeps a stolid pace, inexorably towards terrible realisation. "But faith without works is dead," comes her own biting retort.

The smarts and smarting honesty align her with some latter-day female rockers such as Shannon Wright, Sharon Van Etten and Julien Baker who do not sugarcoat and double-speak.

Not everything has to be lined with the asinine, of course. In Sensory Memory, a bittersweet ode to the absent Barnett, Cloher strums her guitar gently and sings softly: "Distance has a funny way/Of slowly making you someone/That I don't know."

In Strong Woman, she pays tribute to her mother who died from Alzheimer's, and who comes from a matriarchal line of Maori warriors.

"Proud my mother wanted respect more than love/And her mother taught her that she could want for more," she announces over sprightly guitars and drums.

Therein lies the activist spirit of Cloher - she acknowledges her predecessors, her peers and those who come after her, man or woman. Knowing that there is much to fight against and to fight for, she soldiers on, for love, for hope, for freedom.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2017, with the headline 'Honest, heartfelt rock'. Print Edition | Subscribe