Has all of the makings of being one of the more notable indie rock releases of the year.
If Jen Cloher’s music happens to share the visceral qualities and lyrical wit of Courtney Barnett, it may be because their lives are tightly interwoven—they share their lives together as a married couple and as co-founders of Melbourne’s Milk! Records. Although Barnett has become a Pitchfork-backed indie darling inviting comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, Cloher’s name has not yet generated the same amount of ink. Her new album may change that.
Cloher hasn’t just lived in the shadow of her partner. Her debut was nominated for an ARIA Music Award in 2006, and In Blood Memory was shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize in 2013. Fans in the United States may not be familiar with Cloher’s music. But combining a grungy shoegaze with a protean punk, Cloher’s self-titled fourth album delivers fresh takes on intimacy and sharp barbs about politics.
In a lot of ways, Cloher captures snapshots of what it is like to be married to Barnett, even as Barnett plays guitar for much of the record. But she positions these snapshots in the album’s broader musical and political contexts. For example, album opener “Forgot Myself”—which drives a fuzzed out guitar into sunbursts of shoegaze—addresses candidly the alienation she feels regarding her wife’s touring and the effects of loving someone at a distance. “You’d been gone so long you could have been dead,” she deadpans to begin the record. Cloher situates this alienation in the larger histories of rock n’ roll, referencing Patti Smith and refashioning a line from the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”: “I’m driving in my car/ Your song comes on the radio.”
Likewise situated at the intersection of the intimate and the musically contextualized, “Shoegazers,” the album’s fifth track, locates Cloher’s relationship in the web of connotations conjured by the term “indie rock.” Although the song is a bona fide indie rocker replete with a smoldering guitar riff and a disheveled bridge section a la Pavement, it burns with Cloher’s sardonic fire. Going “on the road with [her] girlfriend,” Cloher captures the exhaustion of relationship anxieties and the bastardized hipsterdom of “privileged white kids” wearing “glasses and sweaters” in one fell swoop.
“Analysis Paralysis” pushes her relationship with Barnett into a political arena. Over languid and jangly guitar-lines, Cloher offers a sharp-tongued commentary about Australia’s restrictions on marriage equality: “I’m paralyzed in paradise/ While the Hansonites take a plebiscite/ To decide if I can have a wife.” Although Cloher and Barnett declare themselves to be married, they are not officially so, because Australia’s conservative Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has postponed a public referendum on marriage equality. Barnett’s calculated dissonance in her guitar solo seems to sonically reproduce the couple’s political frustration.
It’s not the only time Cloher gets political. “Kinda Biblical” extends her political perspective by bringing Donald Trump’s presidency and the Christian alt-right into her purview, demonstrating how insular conservative politics have resounding effects on a global scale. “Strong Woman” offers a feminist declaration embedded in a lo-fi track appropriately reminiscent of Sleater-Kinney. And “Regional Echo” quietly broods on the fading “Australian Dream,” offering a politics forged out of melancholia rather than direct antagonism.
While the lyrics remain located under these rubrics of intimacy and politics, the rest of the record spans a wide sonic repertoire. “Sensory Memory” channels For the Roses-era Joni Mitchell before jamming out on a smattering of neo-psychedelic shimmers. The glowering “Great Australian Bite” gathers like a storm, unleashing heavy torrents of distortion. The discordant and off-kilter jaunt of “Waiting in the Wings” feels like a Feist indie pop song that was warped darkly by cynicism.
Although Cloher will continue to invite comparisons to her partner, her self-titled album should be more than enough evidence that she can stand firmly on her own as a musician. With lashes of punk grit and glimmers of shoegaze buoyed by politically and emotionally engaged lyrics, Jen Cloher has all of the makings of being one of the more notable indie rock releases of the year.