There’s an old, inconclusively attributed aphorism that talent borrows and genius steals. Genius is a word used far too loosely, particularly in the arts, but there’s no doubting this: Melbourne singer–songwriter Jen Cloher is a thief of the highest order. Or this: that her fourth, self-titled album is a work of real brilliance, a brave, ambitious and moving follow-up to 2013’s outstanding In Blood Memory.
Cloher is, as anyone paying attention to these things knows, Courtney Barnett’s partner. We can’t ignore the elephant in the room, because Barnett’s guitar playing is a key component of Cloher’s band, and the pair have already written extensively both with and about each other. They are, however, completely different stylists. Where Barnett will use 300 words per song, Cloher might use 30 and be equally profound.
Cloher has stated the lyrics are crucial to understanding this record, and the melodies and song structures are secondary. On one hand, this is true – but it also sells the music, and her incredible band, somewhat short.
But let’s get back to Cloher’s light-fingered tendencies. On the opening track here, Forgot Myself – a song about what happens when you lose sight of your own needs in service of your lover’s – she quotes one of rock’s totemic songs, Satisfaction: “You’re riding around the world / You’re doing this and signing that … I’m driving in my car / Your song comes on the radio / And I remember what I always forget – loneliness.”
In between, Barnett – clearly the subject of the song’s helpless devotion – bends a repeated two-note refrain that bottles up both the song and Cloher’s frustration, creating an explosive push–pull tension. Throughout the album, Cloher’s combination of envy and admiration at seeing her younger partner shoot past her to global fame is expressed with extraordinary emotional candour.
The thieving doesn’t stop there. “I don’t wanna / I don’t think so,” she murmurs on Kinda Biblical, a lift from Sonic Youth’s Kool Thing. It’s a songwriting trick Cloher frequently played on In Blood Memory, too. Both albums are stuffed with instantly recognisable references to rock history that have shaped this otherwise idiosyncratic talent’s worldview. But Cloher has developed a style that’s entirely her own.
The themes of the album are physical and emotional distance. Cloher takes direct inspiration from the Triffids, specifically their 1986 album Born Sandy Devotional, to paint her own vast landscape of Australia circa 2017 through the fish-eye lens of her relationship. The brushstrokes are broad, but Cloher has a poet’s eye for telling, tiny details and the musical ear of a life spent wallowing in the finest rock & roll.
The Triffids’ connection is made explicit on Great Australian Bite, a nod to Australian artists who had to leave home to find an audience: the tyranny of distance is what proves our own existence to ourselves. But, as the late David McComb once observed, we’re on stolen property: “Let’s hope Uncle Archie [Roach] can pay the rent,” Cloher says.
Like McComb, Cloher has developed a facility for lyrics so evocative that they could only have come from here. Regional Echo ghosts in on a shimmering Bones Sloane bassline and slowly expands into a sound grand enough to fill a cathedral, with an unsettling Christ-like metaphor to match: “Bat swaying on the power lines / Wings open in surrender, this is how you die.”
It’s followed by Sensory Memory, an almost unbearably intimate portrait of domestic discord following a lengthy separation. A breakfast of tea for two and soldier toast masks the tension “Of the things we never say / Distance has a funny way of slowly making you someone that I don’t know.” Barnett’s guitar elaborates on an exquisite vocal melody, spiralling over and around drummer Jen Sholakis’s martial rhythm.
On Analysis Paralysis, Sholakis is superbly nuanced as she and Sloane lock into cruise control for seven minutes. Here, the motorik groove and Barnett’s deceptively aimless noodling captures our national stasis over same-sex marriage: “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?” The question is repeated and left hanging, shot through with disbelief.
Then there’s Shoegazing, which sounds like Patti Smith fronting the Rolling Stones – a sexy mid-paced swagger with a venomous bite: “Most critics are pussies who wanna look cool / Those who can they do, those who can’t review / What’s hot today is forgotten tomorrow / All that you’ve got is your joy and your sorrow.” (Hey, it’s a fair cop.)
Strong Woman, meanwhile, is the kind of song PJ Harvey hasn’t written since Rid of Me: all knotted guitars and bolts of feedback, driven at a tearaway tempo by Sholakis. Cloher touches on her childhood – of gender indeterminacy and discovering her sexuality – and finishes by paying tribute to her late mother, casting her as a Maori warrior: “Kia kaha, be proud, stay strong, go on.”
This is a more challenging album than In Blood Memory, which was brief at 33 minutes and seven songs. At 50 minutes, more is demanded of the listener this time around, and the songs take longer to stick. The rewards, though, are deeper. It’s a less visceral, more subtly hued record: the band can billow big clouds of noise, or hold back as the song demands. Nothing is wasted; everything is played for effect.
It finishes with just Cloher and a few plucked acoustic guitar notes on Dark Art. It is the simplest and saddest of love songs, and beautiful in its selflessness. “The other side of love’s joy is shadow / Jealousy, fear, loss, anger, sorrow / If you never stay to sit in love’s shadow / A part of you will always be hollow.” Cloher, though, has surely sat in her love’s shadow long enough. This album is a masterpiece.
First published in The Guardian, 11 August 2017