Jen Cloher, I Am The River, The River Is Me
A special record from one of Australia’s finest songwriters.
A celebration of culture and self is at the heart of Jen Cloher’s fifth solo album. There’s a gentleness to I Am The River, The River Is Me, but a steadfastness, too, as the Melbourne-based singer-songwriter communicates the truths of their existence as a queer Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Kahu Māori person, and the places where those markers of identity intersect.
Dreams and life collide on this beautiful record which, true to its title, feels like a relaxed downstream journey. It stands in contrast to the ferocity of their last release, 2017’s excellent self-titled album, which largely took aim at the toxicity of the music industry – Shoegazers was a masterclass in excoriation – and explored Cloher’s romantic partnership with fellow musician Courtney Barnett, which ended in 2018.
There’s a greater spirituality here, as Cloher unpacks both their culture and the world around them through these thoughtful songs. The title track, on which they contemplate their love for and bond with the environment in the face of ecological collapse, is especially moving: “Wrote a song for you ’cause I know you’re trying / on a planet that you love that you know is dying”. Many of these songs are addressed to this “you”, making it feel especially intimate: is Cloher talking to the listener or to themselves, or is she in conversation with both – with everyone?
It’s gorgeous hearing the musician singing in te reo Māori, as they do on many of these songs – even more so when they’re backed by the Kapa Haka (cultural performance group) Te Hononga o ngā Iwi, who proclaim in haka chants, “Tino rangatiratanga” – translating to “absolute sovereignty”. He Toka-Tū-Moana, featuring Te Kaahu – the two singers’ voices, one deep, one breathy, provide a lovely contrast to one another – is sung entirely in the language. It’s a new way of experiencing Cloher’s songwriting; even if the listener does not understand the words, the tenderness with which they are sung conveys the emotions just as clearly.
Jen Cloher’s new album is a celebration of queerness and culture.
Indeed, there’s a focus on not only the individual experience of heritage, but also the communal – and the collective push for meaningful change, as explored on the stomping Being Human, which agitates for Land Back while Cloher pays respect to the lands on which they have lived and learned (“Everything I have is because of what they lost / Our ‘common wealth’ came at their cost”). Collaborating with a host of Indigenous and Māori artists across the record only further fortifies the point. It’s pointedly and unapologetically political, with Cloher wearing their message proudly.
Sonically, the record leans into a folksy palette that brings to mind Cloher’s earlier work, rather than the crunchy guitars that have characterised their more recent output – though there’s still plenty of that, as on the pulsing My Witch (which has a glorious sapphic accompanying music video that’s very much worth a look) or Aroha Mai, Aroha Atu, which features a wailing singular guitar line over a fuzzy bed of sound. Beautiful brass and string arrangements provide further texture on some tracks. Cloher plays with pop sounds throughout the record, revealing a knack for a catchy melody.
I Am The River, The River Is Me reads like a love letter to many things: heritage, queerness, oneself. Cloher is one of Australia’s finest songwriters, one who takes time between releases and produces music that is in equal parts contemplative and joyful. This is a special record that pays tribute to the past and the future, blending the personal and the political and showing that everything is interconnected. As Cloher sings on the title track, “You’re only here because of everything your people survived.”
– Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
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